Do personalities shape politics or does the political world move with a will of its own? Can individuals determine the fate of nations or are even the most powerful of statesmen doomed to be swept up by events? These are the central questions of this book, as historian Alvin Jackson looks at two men, John Redmond and Edward Carson, of very different natures, who stood on opposite sides at the heart of one of the most turbulent periods in Anglo-Irish history.
An interview each with Lord Kitchener on the eve of the Great War in 1914 best exemplified their contrasting styles. Both Carson and Redmond had placed the militias under their influence – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers respectively – at the behest of the War Office in return for certain concessions. Such horse-trading stuck in the craw of the martinet Kitchener who, as the Secretary of State for War, lost no time in attempting to cut the uppity Irishmen down to size.
“If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond, I should have knocked your heads together,” Kitchener told Carson.
“I’d like to see you try,” replied the other. This was delivered, according to one account, “in a slow drawling way, but with such a look as made Kitchener instantly change his tone.”
Redmond, on the other hand, chose to stand on his wounded dignity. He had been, as he wrote to the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, after his own bruising encounter with Kitchener, “rather disquieted” by it. Nothing stronger was done or said.
Perhaps not coincidently, it was decided that the Ulster Volunteer Force could keep its identity within a separate army division. No such allowance was made for the Irish Volunteers.
But then, not rocking the boat had defined Redmond’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ever since his election as a compromise candidate. It had been a turbulent decade for Nationalist Ireland in the wake of the Parnell Split of 1890, and it was thus fitting that the reunion of the IPP factions be conducted in as acrimonious manner as possible. As summed up by Jackson, Redmond’s elevation was decided by the Party bigwigs narrowing down to who was despised the least:
Tim Healy, believing that [John] Dillon preferred T.C. Harrington, and hating Dillon more than Redmond, had conspired to deliver the latter’s victory in 1900, while at the same time fully expecting him to lose: he regarded Redmond’s final election as simply a ‘fluke’, partly because at the last minute and unexpectedly, William O’Brien had intervened to offer his backing.
Redmond never forgot the tenuity of his authority, nor the underlying tensions it guarded over. “My chief anxiety ever since I have been Chairman of the Irish Party has been to preserve its unity,” he said – more than seven years later. Even an admirer of Redmond’s “impressive manner” could not help but wince at his “non-committal introductory address, which gave him a loophole of escape in every sentence.”
Following in the footsteps of Charles Parnell as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was always going to be a tall order, but Redmond never really tried. When he described himself as the “servant of the Irish Party…I have never attempted in the smallest manner to impose my will upon the will of the Irish Party,” he was that rarest of creatures – an honest politician.
Honed by years of bare-knuckle courtroom drama, where he had excelled as a barrister, Carson presented a very different political beast. For one, unlike Redmond, he was not afraid to bite the hand that fed him. As MP for Dublin University (Trinity College), Carson took the lead in opposing the reforms of the Irish Land Bill of 1896, acting on behalf of his conservatively-minded constituents.
This was despite the fact that the bill was the brainchild of the brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour. The latter, as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1887 to 1891, had pushed for Carson’s advancement in the legal profession and then later his election to MP. Balfour was all too aware of this twisted turn of events, as he complained plaintively in the wake of a tongue-lashing from his former protégé:
Carson was the aggressor and made an entirely unprovoked attack. He had a perfect right to forget that I had promoted him above the heads of all his seniors to the highest place at the Irish bar, and that I had strained my influence…with Trinity College Dublin to get them, for the first time in their history, to elect as their representative one who then called himself a Liberal…But he had not the right to forget that we belonged to the same party and that as colleagues under most difficult and anxious circumstances we had fought side-by-side in many a doubtful battle.
For Carson, it was a case of putting principle before party, with personal friendships taking second place to whatever cause for which he was advocate.
Such prioritising made him a most mercurial ally. After serving a mere five months as attorney general in Asquith’s wartime government, he resigned in October 1915 and became the Prime Minister’s most implacable opponent, pursuing him with the same doggedness he displayed in a courtroom until Asquith’s resignation at the end of 1916, a move largely accredited by Westminster insiders to Carson.
If Redmond lacked such a killer instinct, he compensated with an even temperament that allowed him to manage the complex and far-ranging responsibilities as IPP chairman. “Patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable to the necessary anger – he held together, from a position of weakness, this great national enterprise, and brought it to the cusp of victory in 1914,” Jackson writes.
Carson, in contrast, was on unsteady ground when not on the offensive. Having orchestrated Asquith’s fall and his replacement by David Lloyd George, Carson was promoted by the new prime minister to the Admiralty, a role in which he proved to be – so to speak – lost at sea.
German submarines were reaping a devastating toll on British shipping, yet Carson had no ideas to offer a dispirited navy. It took a vigorous intervention by Lloyd George in August 1917, when he harangued the Admiralty Board from – tellingly enough – Carson’s seat at the table, to kick-start a more proactive policy. Carson was soon shuffled off to a harmless post elsewhere.
Jackson takes a surgical approach to his material, prising open the public personae of Carson and Redmond to find the complexities and contradictions beneath. At times he seems to enjoy teasing the boundaries of what we know – or think we do – about the two men. “Would a Carsonite leadership of the Irish Party have produced a different fate for constitutional nationalism?” he asks. “Would a more senatorial and oritund command of Ulster unionism have sustained a militant defiance of the British Government?” The pair, Jackson suggests, each had the right abilities for the wrong position.
On a lighter note are the range of documents and memorandum on display here. They vary from satirical cartoon and political posters, to a postcard featuring Redmond’s pensive visage on one side and on the other a written comment from an appreciative – and apparently Unionist – woman: “Is not this photo nice. Though of wrong party, I would like to elope with him.”
In the dark, early hours of the 25th April 1922, tensions that had been simmering for weeks in the town of Athlone, Co. Westmeath, spilled over into bloodshed. Soon afterwards, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the pro-Treaty military issued its report on the shocking event:
Shortly after midnight on Monday a party of officers left Custume Barracks, Athlone, and proceeded down the town to the Royal Hotel, outside of which they commandeered a motor car. When the party returned to the military barracks it was discovered that one officer was missing.
A search party of four was sent out to find their errant comrade, sometime around 2 am. As they walked towards the Irishtown area of Athlone, they came across a man loitering in a shop doorway.
“Who are you?” asked one of the search party, Brigadier-General George Adamson.
“I know you, George. You know me, Adamson,” came the cryptic reply. Not satisfied, the officers demanded the stranger to put his hands up. When he remained as he was, Adamson levelled a revolver on him.
Suddenly there was a rush and the search party found themselves confronted in turn by a rival group of armed men. When they were disarmed – so read the GHQ report – the man in the doorway drew a revolver of his own and fired point blank through Adamson’s ear, into his head.
However dreadful, the incident was not altogether surprising. It might even be said that something of its nature was inevitable, given the state of the country.
The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed five months earlier, in December 1921, by the British Government and the plenipotentiaries of Dáil Éireann had seen the end of one war and the stirrings of another. The country was instantly divided on the question of whether or not to accept such terms, a situation heightened rather than mollified when the Dáil narrowly voted to do so in January 1922.
Nowhere were the divisions more keenly – or dangerously – felt than in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Before they had been united as brothers-in-arms against the might of the foreign oppressor. Now the enemy had agreed to a peace deal that few had expected, and not all wanted, as the insistence on the oath to the Crown made many think that the cure for their country was no better than the disease. With the British Army set to depart for good, each IRA man was left, not so much to savour the victory but to wonder where they stood in the new and uncertain situation.
Not that things worsened immediately. It took time for them to deteriorate to the point where a man would be shot in the head on the streets of Athlone. In the first few months after the Treaty, there was still chances to stand together. On the 28th January 1922, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Midland IRA Division mustered openly for the first time since its inception. About eight hundred men assembled outside Athlone, much to the admiration of a journalist who commented about how:
Of fine physique and displaying efficient military training, the men made the most imposing spectacle as they marched through the town, headed by the Athlone brass band.
Thousands of spectators lined the pavements, including members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who appeared greatly impressed at the display of the same men they had been trying to arrest months before.
The policemen might as well be graceful losers. ‘WHAT A CHANGE!’ read the headline of a local newspaper as it reported that it was the Athlone IRA Brigade who now granted permission to possess firearms, such as to an officer in the British garrison for a fowling piece. Policing patrols were being conducted jointly by the RIC and the IRA, but for the former this were to last only until its disbandment as per the terms of the Treaty.
After all the violence, it looked to be an orderly transfer of authority, which some might have thought boded well for the future.
As well as looking to the future, the men of the IRA found time to pay respects to the past. On the 6th February 1922, a Celtic cross was erected at Cornafulla, near Athlone, to the memory of James Tormey, killed almost a year before at that same site. Unveiling the monument was George Adamson in what must have been a poignant occasion for him, considering that he had been present at Tormey’s death.
Tormey had ordered a mobilisation of the local IRA unit with the intent of ambushing a Black-and-Tan patrol as they cycled by Cornafulla. As soon as the group of Tans came into sight on the 2nd February 1921, Tormey recklessly opened fire before the rest of the ambush party, which included Adamson, were ready.
The Tans instantly dismounted from their bicycles and shot back, forcing the IRA to beat a hasty retreat. Tormey was covering the escape when a Tan crept into a lane at a right angle from the main road, outflanking Tormey and shooting him in the head before he could react.
In the confusion, and perhaps fearing another ambush, the Tans had cycled away, leaving Tormey’s body where it lay. Adamson and the others had managed to escape and later, under the cover of night, they removed the corpse by boat down the Shannon and buried it in secret. That was not the end of the matter, as the cadaver was dug up soon afterwards by Tans who took it to Athlone where Tormey’s father identified his son. Only then was the body allowed to rest in the family plot in Mount Temple.
In time, Adamson’s own remains were buried there besides Tormey’s. “Sad to relate,” wrote an old comrade of theirs in later years, “their graves are grossly neglected, being covered with weeds and dirt. There is no monument or anything to mark the place.”
As patrols and searches by Crown forces increased, death was never far away. The Athlone IRA had become a victim of its own success, for the string of ambushes inflicted in the latter half of 1920 had stirred the British garrison into a vigorous response. Adamson would have a brush with mortality in March 1921 when he and another man, Gerald Davis, set out on a mission of their own.
Davis had arrived from Dublin at the behest of GHQ to help organise the Athlone IRA. He made the acquaintance of Adamson, then the Vice O/C of the Brigade, who impressed Davis as being “a fine type of man, well built, a good athlete and a very good fellow all round.”
The Brigade was in not such good shape, its members having scattered to avoid the attentions of the British authorities. Still, David was game and in Adamson he found a kindred soul. When they received word of two Tans who were in the company of a pair of local women, Davis and Adamson set out with revolvers to the farmhouse outside Athlone where the women lived.
They found one of the Tans in the yard and quickly disarmed him. Adamson stood guard over their captive – the intent being to rob them of arms rather than to kill – while Davis went in search of the other. When he found him hiding behind a clamp of turf, the Tan shot at him before making a break. David fired after the fleeing man, grazing his thigh but nothing more, the mismatched ammo in his Colt pistol rendering its aim difficult.
Davis doubled back at the sound of Adamson shouting to find that the prisoner had turned the tables and pinned Adamson to the ground. A big man, the Tan had wrestled the gun off his former captor and used it to shoot Adamson in the chest. Davis shot the Tan in the side, wounding him, just in time for the second foe to return.
Davis had by then been wounded as well, in the arm though he did not seem aware of when he had been hit. He fired at the second Tan to keep him back and then helped the bleeding Adamson to his feet. They both fled at this point, their plan in tatters. Adamson had lost his revolver in the tussle and they had failed to rob the Tans of theirs as intended, but at least they were alive, if barely in Adamson’s case.
They retreated across the Shannon to a friendly house where Adamson was treated for his chest wound. Davis’ arm went septic for a while but he recovered, as did Adamson who remained at large by the time the Truce came in July 1921. Davis was not so lucky, having been arrested in a British round-up and then – to add insult to injury – identified by one of the Tans he and Adamson had tried to mug.
It was all part of the trials and tribulations of running an insurgency but, with the signing of the Treaty, the war was done and the worst over. At least, that is what Adamson and his peers could have been forgiven for thinking.
Colonel Anthony Lawlor’s first thought on the Treaty had been “we can’t touch that.” It did not give Ireland enough in his opinion, and Lawlor feared that the people would be content with that and go no further towards complete independence. Lawlor would be denied the luxury of such long-term thinking when Patrick Morrissey, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, stalked into his office in the Athlone Military Barracks that was also the base for the IRA Midlands Division.
Their commanding officer, Major-General Seán Mac Eoin, was away in Dublin, leaving Lawlor in charge. Dublin was also where Morrissey had just returned from, a forbidden visit that had marked the man with a new – and, as far as Lawlor was concerned, an unpleasantly defiant – demeanour as he stood before Lawlor, legs wide apart and a revolver protruding above his belt, having not bothered to salute him.
“We’ve decided to stand by the Republic,” Morrissey told him, according to Lawlor’s recollections.
“We’re all standing by the Republic,” Lawlor insisted.
“You’re not,” Morrissey shot back.
However dismayed, could not have been hugely surprised, for the controversial IRA Convention had taken place the previous day, on the 28th March 1922, at the Mansion House in Dublin. It had been promised by the Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy, on behalf of the IRA GHQ as a way of settling the differences fostered by the Treaty. Mulcahy had then pulled a volte-face and banned attendance on threat of dismissal.
That so many IRA members, including some from the Athlone Brigade such as Morrissey, could be found in the Mansion House on the day, regardless of what had been ordered, did not bode well for the GHQ’s continued authority.
At that moment in Athlone Barracks, it was Lawlor’s own authority that he had to worry about. He stood up, thinking quickly, and told Morrissey to summon the men onto the parade ground. When they were assembled, Lawlor played the part of the army drill-sergeant.
“I blackguarded them,” he recalled. “Told them they were the worst looking crowd I’d ever seen, and that if they were going to fight for a Republic none of them was likely to accomplish very much.”
Lawlor began to drill them, an unexpected move that put him back in charge. He told them to stack their weapons in the armoury and gave them a five minute respite. When he called them again to the parade ground, he made sure they were well away from their arms, which were being stored surreptitiously away by those officers who had remained loyal to GHQ.
All the while, Lawlor carried a pistol in each hand and warned his men that he would shoot if they so much as challenged him. He did not dare not shoot, he told them candidly, if he wanted to continue in his command.
This was enough to overawe the men but not indefinitely. When the men realised they had been gulled, they clamoured to reclaim their stolen weapons. Mac Eoin returned to the Barracks to find near pandemonium as Lawlor and his handful of partisans, including Adamson, stood in a thin line between the armoury and their own enraged men.
While Lawlor had been subtle, Mac Eoin was direct. After calling the men into line, he challenged Morrissey, standing at the front of the ranks, if he was prepared to follow the orders of the Dáil.
Morrissey tried hedging, saying no but that he would still obey any that came from Mac Eoin. For Mac Eoin, this was not good enough, pointing out that he had no authority save what the Dáil granted him. When Morrissey refused to budge, Mac Eoin ripped his Sam Browne belt off him, swung him around and shoved him out through the Barracks’ door. Mac Eoin proceeded down the ranks, meting out the same rough treatment to all else who refused to toe the line.
“That was not in any code that I know,” Mac Eoin later admitted, “but it was an effective method of dealing with the situation.”
Effective – up to a point. Banishing the dissenting officers was one thing, making them disappear quite another, as shown when they retreated to the Royal Hotel in Marydyke Street, Athlone. There, Morrissey addressed his compatriots from a window, appealing to them to not say or do anything that would shame the name of the Athlone Brigade.
To nip things in the bud, Mac Eoin issued a proclamation to the tradesmen of Athlone. All costs contracted by the IRA up to and including the 25th March would be honoured, after which he would not be responsible for any more unless a written order was presented, signed by his Divisional Quartermaster.
“I accept no liability for any Brigade order owing to the suspension of the Brigade,” Mac Eoin warned.
Lawlor clarified this in an interview with a local newspaper on the 4th April. He explained that certain officers of the Athlone Brigade had repudiated the authority of the Dáil, the IRA GHQ and Mac Eoin. Therefore, these malcontents had been suspended. The Athlone Brigade would continue under the authority of Brigadier Adamson, promoted from Vice O/C to acting commander. All further officers who refused to obey the orders from their lawful superiors were to be regarded no longer as soldiers but civilians.
But Lawlor was trying to shut the door to a half-empty stable. Two days earlier, Morrissey had led six hundred men from the Athone Brigade in officially breaking ties with their pro-Treaty colleagues. He announced to the parade of men that he had received word from the IRA Executive, formed from the Anti-Treatyite leaders at the March Convention, to reaffirm their allegiance to the Republic.
The men uncovered their heads and stood with raised hands as Morrissey administrated the oath of loyalty to them. Afterwards, Morrissey again impressed upon them the importance of discipline, and specifically not to interfere with the men on the other side.
An incident on that same day hinted at how matters were escalating beyond words and proclamations. Sergeant-Major Shields had left the Barracks – renamed the Custume Barracks in honour of the 17th century defender of Athlone – seemingly as a deserter. When two pro-Treaty officers stopped him in the street, Shields made a grab for the revolver of one before attempting to run and received a warning to stop, followed by a bullet to the leg when he did not.
Despite the drama, Shields did not seem to belong to either faction, as evidenced by the lack of reaction. A certain kind of peace was allowed to continue for the next six days.
On the evening of the 8th April, Mac Eoin entered the Royal Hotel, now the full-time base of the anti-Treaty IRA in Athlone. Morrissey was absent, leaving McGlynn, the acting commander present, to be told by Mac Eoin that he and his men were to depart by 9 am the next day. Shortly afterwards, a priest, Father Columba, also visited the hotel and advised the men there to comply.
Morning came to find the Anti-Treatyites still defiantly inside. Colonel Lawlor made his way towards the hotel shortly before 2 pm, meeting McGlynn on the way. When McGlynn again declined to vacate, he was arrested and taken to Custume Barracks. Lawlor repeated the demand to the next acting commander in the hotel, Captain Hughes, who likewise refused.
A quarter of an hour later, Lawlor had summoned enough of his soldiers to surround the Royal Hotel, complete with machine-guns. The garrison remained where they were behind the barricaded windows and sang The Soldier’s Song, the unofficial anthem of the revolution since its early years.
Conflict seemed imminent and all civilians nearby hurriedly made themselves scarce. Another priest, Father James, appeared on the scene to appeal for calm for the sake of the women and children in the surrounding houses. This managed to bring the leaders of the respective sides together and, after some discussion, it was agreed that the Anti-Treatyites would indeed leave the Royal Hotel by 5 pm that day. They could take their equipment with them and McGlynn would be released.
With that, the Pro-Treatyites withdrew to their Barracks. The other faction was as good as its word. At the designated time, about fifty men could be seen leaving the hotel, marching – according to a local newspaper – “good-humouredly away.”
Even if genuine, the good humour did not last long.
On the 11th April, the anti-Treaty IRA returned to reoccupy the Royal Hotel, along with a grocery store that lay directly opposite, as well rooms over a bakery on the same street. Barricades were quickly erected in the windows of these buildings, with armed guards seen behind them by the inhabitants of Mardyke Street, many of whom swiftly fled for fear of an imminent battle.
Their concerns appeared well-founded when Mac Eoin arrived with a force of his own men from Custume Barracks, who occupied in turn a shop and a residence on Mardyke Street, as well as a store on the adjacent Dublin Street, after which they set up barricades of their own.
War seemed inevitable until four priests – including Father James from before – intervened and induced Mac Eoin and his opposing counterpart, Commandant-General Seán Fitzpatrick, to meet. After a short exchange, an adjournment for an hour was agreed upon.
During this lull, the priests requested all public-houses to close. “Business was at a stand-still, and the people moved about in suspense,” reported the Irish Times.
As a result of a subsequent meeting between the two leaders, conflict was again averted, much to the relief of the citizens. For the past few days, they had been helpless witnesses to the manoeuvrings and military brinkmanship conducted in their own town.
The Anti-Treatyites were to stay in Athlone, based once more in the Royal Hotel, and there the situation remained until fourteen days later, on the night of the 25th April, when a hapless George Adamson was shot in the head.
Mac Eoin was the first to arrive on the scene. At the inquest in Athlone the next day, Mac Eoin told of what he had seen and done that night.
He had returned from Tralee, Co. Kerry, the previous evening, and was staying at the house of a friend, Mr Duffy, when he heard four shots that sounded as if they had come from directly outside. Springing out of bed, Mac Eoin whipped up the revolver from where he had left it on a table and dashed to the window. Leaning out, he heard the sounds of running footsteps and saw a man in a laneway opposite the house.
Mac Eoin called out: “Halt! Who goes there?”
“Friend,” came the odd reply, perhaps made just to avoid being shot at.
From where he was, Mac Eoin thought he could make out in the dark the object on the ground outside. As he did so, someone shouted: “A man is dying on the street!”
Throwing on some clothes, Mac Eoin rushed out to find Adamson on his back, blood pouring out of his ear. Mac Eoin raised him up in his arms and sent Duffy, who had come out to assist, for a doctor and a priest, the last a sober acknowledgement of Adamson’s chances. A strong man, Mac Eoin carried the victim inside, before heading off towards the Royal Hotel.
On the way, he met Duffy and Father Columba, one of the four priests who had helped arrange the truce – for what it was worth – a fortnight ago. Duffy told him of how he had been held up on the street by masked men while looking for the priest.
That made Mac Eoin all the more determined to reach the Royal Hotel, where he found several Anti-Treatyites, including Commandant-General Fitzpatrick from before. Mac Eoin asked Fitzpatrick if all his men were inside and accounted for. When Fitzpatrick replied in the affirmative, Mac Eoin retorted that there was no use spouting such falsehoods. George Adamson had been murdered, Mac Eoin said, and demanded to know what Fitzpatrick knew of it.
Fitzpatrick, according to Mac Eoin’s testimony, replied: “Be straight with me and I will be straight with you. Four men arrived here tonight, and were talking business with me. They went out and returned, saying that their car was gone, and went out again in less than ten minute afterwards. I heard shouting.”
Fitzpatrick added that he did not know the names of these four. One of the other Anti-Treatyites present piped up to say that he did not know the men either, only that they appeared to be acquainted with Captain Macken, who had ordered that they be admitted in the first place
For his part, Macken said that he only knew one of them, this being a Commandant Burke, which was not a name that meant anything to Mac Eoin.
Also present was Gerald Davis, Adamson’s partner in the botched robbery on the Tans. Upon release from prison as per the terms of the Truce, Davis had re-joined the Athlone Brigade, taking the opposite side to Adamson on the Treaty question. When asked in turn, Davis admitted to knowing the foursome but refused to divulge their names.
The news of the shooting seems to have rattled Fitzpatrick as much as enraged Mac Eoin. After Mac Eoin departed from the hotel, Fitzpatrick came to a decision and dispatched a message after the other man to inform him of it:
In view of the attitude which you adopt as a consequence of the regrettable shooting which occurred some hours ago, I have, after consultation with my officers, and with a view of avoiding bloodshed, decided on leaving the Royal Hotel, and taking up quarters elsewhere.
I repeat that the responsibility for the shooting rests not with me. I sincerely regret the occurrence.
Mac Eoin was not mollified. At 6 am, his Pro-Treatyites surrounded the hotel, with Mac Eoin issuing an ultimatum to Fitzpatrick inside:
I hereby charge you and all officers and men in the Royal Hotel with unlawfully conspiring with a commandant and others, unknown, to slay and murder Brigadier-General Adamson, O.C., Athlone Brigade, IRA.
I further charge the Commandant mentioned, and others known to you, with the murder of the above named officer. I hereby call on you to surrender all men and officers in the Royal Hotel on receipt of this, allowing 15 minutes for reply of surrender, and after the expiration of that time I [will] open fire, and do so as the lawful authority, charged with the peace of the district.
Knowing he was beaten, Fitzpatrick wrote back:
In reply to your demand, I have no choice but to surrender. I must assert that I am not in any way responsible for the shooting.
Fitzpatrick’s attempt to retreat with dignity intact had been coldly denied. He bowed to the inevitable and surrendered, being led away with his men to detainment inside Custume Barracks.
Adamson died a few hours after being shot, by which time a crowd had gathered outside his hospital to pray for his recovery. The lowering of the tricolour over Athlone Castle was enough to break the news to them and the rest of the town, where he had been known and well-liked.
The 25-year-old native of Moate, Co. Westmeath, had had a brief but eventful life. Previous to his service in the Athlone IRA, he had fought during the Great War, earning a Mons Star and a Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous bravery. That this had been part of the same British Army he would later oppose was one of the many ironies of the period, as was the grim fact that his end had come not at German or British hands, but that of his fellow countrymen.
Fittingly, IRA members and ex-servicemen from the British Army were among the ten thousand-strong crowd who attended the funeral two days later. All business was suspended in Athlone and Moate, with shops closed and window blinds drawn, as the guards of honour, in full uniform and holding their rifles reversed, accompanied the tricoloured-draped coffin as it was carried through the streets of Athlone on the shoulders of Adamson’s colleagues.
Mac Eoin in particular was hit hard by the killing. Among the speakers at the funeral, he was “visibly affected,” according to a local newspaper, as he “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”
At the next session of the Dáil in Dublin on the 26th April 1922, President Arthur Griffith spoke of the “foully murdered” Adamson, who “died for his country as truly as any man ever died for it.” When Harry Boland was unwise enough to refer to “unfortunate business in Athlone”, the pro-Treaty benches reacted like a scalded cat.
“Surely, by goodness, it has not come to this, that the shooting of a man is to be treated as ‘business’,” lambasted W.T. Cosgrave. “The Deputy, who may have made it in the heat of the moment, has now time to alter it.”
“Of course I did not mean to suggest that murder is a business,” Boland said hastily.
But Cosgrave was merciless: “’Unfortunate business’ is what you said.”
“’The unfortunate death of a soldier in Athlone’,” Boland amended, backtracking in full.
“That is better,” Cosgrave allowed. “A little bit better.”
At the inquest in Athlone on the 26th April, the day after the shooting, the jury had some choice things to say, not least about the state of the country in general:
We desire to express our abhorrence of this and other un-Irish acts, now of too common occurrence, and while trying to be impartial, we desire to protest against the robberies, raids, stealing from trains, and stealing of motor cars in this district, and we call on the authorities to put it down at once.
J.H. Dixon, the solicitor for the pro-Treaty military authorities, expressed, on his own behalf and for the people of Athlone, sympathy for Adamson’s father, who was present with other relatives. Seán Mac Eoin seconded this, adding that the late Brigadier-General had been a man the Army was proud to have had. His family did not need to be assured of the sympathy of the Army, for they had full evidence of it already. As further proof of Adamson’s valour, his father was handed the four medals he had won for distinguished service in the Great War.
After Mac Eoin had testified to what he had seen that night, it was the turn of Dr MacDonnell. He told of how he had found the victim unconscious in Mr Duffy’s house, where Mac Eoin had brought him. Together with a second doctor to arrive, they had plugged the large wound in the left ear. With some effort, they succeeded in partly reviving Adamson, who managed to utter a request to be taken home. After bandaging his head, the doctors helped their patient to the barracks.
Next up on the stand was the military surgeon. He had examined the body that morning, and told of how he had found two wounds, an entrance wound high up on the back of the head, the other an exit wound in the left ear. In his opinion, death had been due to shock, haemorrhage and compression of the brain.
An eyewitness to the shooting, Lieutenant O’Meara, reiterated much of what had already been reported. He had been one of the four-strong party who went out that night with Adamson. When they returned to their barracks, two of their number were noticed to be missing. It was while searching for them in Athlone that they spied a man in a doorway.
When Adamson challenged the stranger, while ordering Lieutenant Walsh to cover him with a revolver, the man had merely said: “It is all right, George, I know you, and you know me,” adding, “you are George Adamson, and you know something about the car that is gone.”
Eight others suddenly appeared, shouting: “Hands up! We mean it, George. Put up your hands!”
After the four Pro-Treatyites were disarmed, O’Meara heard several shots ring out, followed by the sight of Adamson crumpling to the ground.
The coroner for Co. Westmeath concluded from the hearing that this had been an act of murder, pure and simple. He left the matter with the jury, who returned to deliver the same verdict as the coroner. Which was reasonable enough – it did not seem like a complicated case, after all.
It was a sign of the times that the official report would so casually, almost innocently, mention officers of its own army engaging in car theft, a detail honed in by Thomas Johnson, Secretary of the Labour Party, in a letter sent on the 27th April to the press.
“By what authority have military officers commandeered a motor car outside a hotel?” Johnson demanded. “Does this not indicate a state of mind alien to the conception of civil law?”
The stolen vehicle would play a larger role in the statement released by the Four Courts, the base of operations for the anti-Treaty IRA leadership, and written by Timothy Buckley, Quartermaster of the Third Southern Division (encompassing Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary). Buckley had been present that night in Athlone and so was able to give the Anti-Treatyites’ version of events:
On the night of the 24th inst., I, with the Commandant [Tom Burke], Adjutant [Joseph Reddin], and Q.M. [Seán Robbins] of Offaly, No. 2 Brigade, motored to Athlone to see Commandant General Fitzpatrick, re transfer of arms.
While engaged with him in his quarters, our motor was stolen from where we had it outside the door. We followed in the direction in which we believed the car had been taken, but could not find the party who took the car.
The men heard their vehicle being driven through a backstreet, towards the Custume Barracks. As the military compound was in Pro-Treatyite hands, they knew they would not be retrieving their car anytime soon. For lack of other options, the four stranded men proceeded into town to find another car to hire for their return journey to Birr, Co. Offaly.
But the theft was not to be the end of that night’s drama for them:
We called up a Mr. Poole in the adjoining street, and were just asking for one of his cars when the Q.M. [Robbins], Offaly, No. 2, was held up about ten yards from where Commandant Burke and I were standing.
In the brief scuffle, Robbins was able to disarm two of his assailants. As Reddin and Burke came to his assistance, the other men ran away, with only one of them stubbornly holding his ground with his hands in his pocket. Burke was confronting this man, who they later learnt was Adamson, when they were abruptly fired upon from the other side of the street.
In the dark, Buckley could not see who the shooter was. He fired back twice with his automatic, and the mystery gunman ran off, pausing only to fire several more times at them from further up the street.
Such was the confusion that Buckley was not sure what was going on, only that he saw Adamson suddenly collapse in the middle of the street. With the shooter now gone, the four Anti-Treatyites rushed to the fallen man’s aid.
We took him off the street and tried to get him to sit upright, but we saw and believed that he was almost beyond human aid. In order to give his friends a chance of helping him, we left the street in their possession, left the town on foot and walked as far as our Divisional area.
“The death of Commandant Adamson is very much regretted,” Commandant Burke added in a brief footnote to Buckley’s statement, as he stressed his group’s lack of complicity.
One of the residents of Athlone was the future politician, Dr Noel Browne. Then six years of age, he was woken by his father, who urged his children to lie flat on the floor. From outside came the sounds of gunfire, mixed with those of running feet. A voice shouted out “don’t shoot!”, though Browne was unsure as to whether that particular auditory detail had actually occured or if he only imagined it.
But the blood on the street the next morning was real enough, dried and black and still visible despite the efforts to hide it with a potato sack. The memory of “this awful example of a man’s unique capacity to kill cruelly a fellow man” stayed with Browne. In 1948, twenty-six years afterwards, he met Mac Eoin, both now ministers in the Inter-Party Government. Browne told him about that night in Athlone, when he had first heard the older man’s voice outside his bedroom window. The two became friends as well as co-workers, with Browne thinking Mac Eoin, then in his fifties, a “gentle peaceful man.”
Time had perhaps mellowed the old warrior. Mac Eoin would emerge from that fateful night a changed soul. Before, he had been noted for his chivalry, such as when he had spared Auxiliaries captured at the Granard Ambush of February 1921, going so far as to have the wounded tended to. The Mac Eoin after Adamson’s death was a harder, colder character, with no patience now for talk of peace and compromise.
When the Dáil met the next month in May 1922 to discuss a possible ceasefire between the increasingly fractious IRA sects, his was the dissenting voice as he expressed incredulity that things could be resolved so amiably. Instead, he called for a tougher line on those he saw as the villains of the piece.
“Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences,” he lectured the other TDs. “Justice demands that certain things be done.”
Soon afterwards in September, with the Civil War in full swing, Mac Eoin told the Dáil that: “If I was sure of the man who murdered General Adamson, and if I met him on the street, I would shoot him.”
This was said as part of the proposal to establish army courts to deal with the anti-Treaty prisoners. Once again, Thomas Johnson acted as the closest thing the Dáil had to an opposition leader as he pushed for these courts to be headed by a legal professional, instead of being purely military in nature. To Mac Eoin, however, only a soldier could appreciate the situation of another.
“The reason I would shoot him then,” he continued, “was because there was no law but the law that was vested in me as the Competent Authority of the area. Pass the law that is now asked, and there would be no necessity for me to shoot him, because there would be a legal method of dealing with that individual.”
Later that session, he dismissed the idea that an armistice could be arranged. “It will be the same as the last truce,” he warned, having learnt the limits of patience. “It will be all one-sided, and you cannot have that.”
Even years afterwards, Mac Eoin never wavered in his belief that Adamson’s death had been cold-blooded murder. When he wrote to the Pensions Board in 1929 on behalf of Adamson’s mother to urge for financial assistance, he told of how and why her son had met his end: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”
Some on the anti-Treaty side nursed their own theories.
Liam Carroll was among those Anti-Treatyites present in Athlone that night, along with five others inside Claxton’s Hotel. When they heard shots outside, they quickly hurried out of town by foot, leaving their car behind in their haste to avoid trouble. Such was the confusion that Carroll was able to return the next day and retrieve their vehicle, which had been left untouched. He had not witnessed what happened, but later told the historian Uinseann MacEoin (no relation to Seán Mac Eoin) how “Republicans believe [the shooting] was done by one of [Mac Eoin’s] bodyguards.”
Another Anti-Treatyite who had been stationed in the area, Walter Mitchell, went further, suggesting to Uinseann MacEoin that it had been Seán Mac Eoin himself who had been responsible. As for the possible reasons why, Mac Eoin was jealous of the other man, “being good in an ordinary scrap, [but] he was completely uneducated”, while Adamson “had far more military science.”
In contrast, Mitchell believed that “no Republican would set out to slay George Adamson.” After all, the Adamson Mitchell remembered had been a “fine soldier, hot-tempered and all that, but he was able to handle men well, including parade formation on the barrack square.” Still, Mitchell appeared less aggrieved at his slaying and more about how the Pro-Treatyites had exploited it for sympathy purposes.
Meeting such accusations head on fuelled Mac Eoin at the second inquiry, held on the 25th May, at the Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, site of the National University. Unlike the first inquiry, which had been dominated by the Pro-Treatyites, this one consisted of attendees from both sides. To stave off further violence, a truce had been signed by the military heads of each IRA faction and, for a while, a spirit of reconciliation pervaded the country, with fraternal ties tentatively renewed and even talk of the two sundered wings reuniting.
But Mac Eoin was in a far from obliging mood when he took the stand inside the Newman House. Dismissing the rumour that he had been the one responsible for Adamson’s shooting as a mere “propaganda stunt”, he argued for the impossibility of such a notion on the grounds that “you cannot shoot unless you fire. You cannot kill unless you fire. My revolver is as full now as it was that day. There is none out of it since.”
He retold his version of that night in Athlone, giving his audience the impression that Adamson had been anticipating something would happen – and that he and Mac Eoin had been unusually close for a commander and his subordinate. In court, Mac Eoin pointed to a ring he was wearing, and told how Adamson, while visiting him at Mr O’Duffy’s house, had taken the ring off his own finger and put it on Mac Eoin’s, saying: “Every time you look at that, think of me.”
Soon after, Mac Eoin continued, when he saw Adamson stricken in the street, he thought back on the ring and wondered if Adamson had had some information about an attempt to be made on his life. Instead of telling Mac Eoin about it, he had gone out to face it alone.
“I know that is not so,” added Mac Eoin on the stand, “but that is what appeared to me at that moment.”
Certain statements Mac Eoin had made to the press came under scrutiny when P.J. Ruttledge, the legal counsel for the anti-Treaty IRA, cross-examined him. If Mac Eoin had been in a righteously angry mood, then Ruttledge sought to match him, outrage by outrage.
Ruttledge: Are you aware that that has gone through three-quarters of the earth, blackguarding a force –?
Mac Eoin: It has just gone as far as the propaganda has gone that I shot him from the window. That statement is an answer to the other.
Ruttledge: You say a certain man did a certain thing. I want to know have you evidence on which to base that charge?
Mac Eoin: There will be evidence here on which to base that charge.
The atmosphere was sufficiently testy at one point for Tom Hales, the president of the court, to ask J. H. Dixon, again the solicitor for the Pro-Treatyites, to moderate his choice of words.
“I wish you would leave out the word ‘murder’ altogether,” Hales said.
“Very well, sir, ‘causing death’,” Dixon said, before adding: “Causing death is very obnoxious. At the same time, I think it will get down to a stage when we cannot have any fineness about words.”
Much of the inquiry was spent recapping the two different, and contradictory, versions of Adamson’s demise. The witnesses from the pro-Treaty forces had it that their late comrade had been callously gunned down, while those for the Anti-Treatyites insisted that his death had been the result of an alteration that spiralled out of control and where, given the confusion, it was impossible to determine culpability.
When the court reassembled on the 1st June to announce its verdict, it showed it had decided on the more cautious interpretation:
We find that the much-regretted and tragic death of the late Brigadier Adamson, Athlone Brigade, Midland Division, I.R.A., resulted from a series of events on the night of the 25th April, accompanied by indiscretions on both sides.
Following the seizure of a car from the Executive Forces, I.R.A., at a late hour that resulted in a hold-up of a man who happened to be an officer of the [anti-Treaty] Forces. Concurrently his commander arrived on the scene, and the discharge of a single shot immediately brought about a burst of firing, in the course of which Brigadier Adamson was fatally wounded by some persons unknown.
The Court cannot determined from the evidence the responsibility for the discharge of the first shot, whether accidental or otherwise, but express the firm conviction that the shooting of Brigadier Adamson was not premeditated.
Given the lack of hard evidence and conflicting viewpoints, there was perhaps little else the court could have said. George Adamson’s death remained, and continues to be so, a mystery.
The extraordinary thing about the people detailed in this book is how much they loathed each other. Distrust, intolerance, the splits that occurred with clockwork frequency, the resultant trauma lingering on for years on end – all from people ostensibly on the same side. “Great hatred, little room,” wrote W.B. Yeats of Ireland, and nowhere is that truer than here.
But then, perhaps it is an attitude inevitable among those who consider themselves at war, where trust and forbearance are not necessarily virtues. “I’m suspicious of everyone,” was how Ruairí Ó Brádaigh put it to the book’s author. Robert White had known him for almost twenty years but did not consider himself an exception. Considering Ó Brádaigh’s situation, White thought it a prudent measure.
As a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) since its inception in 1969, Ó Brádaigh had seen much to be suspicious about. His overriding fear was that his beloved republican movement, the struggle for a united Ireland that he had committed his life to, would be neutered. As the PIRA approached its convention in 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was whether it should break with its tradition of abstentionism towards Dublin and allow its members in Sinn Féin to accept seats in the Dáil.
To Ó Brádaigh, such a step would take them on a slippery slope to that most dreaded of outcomes – compromise.
“Parliament is a replacement for civil war. You talk it out instead of in the streets,” he said. In case anyone thought that a good thing, he added a caveat: “If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and the other leg in Parliament, you’ve a bloody awful mistake.”
For the ‘reformers’, the stakes were equally high. Their move to overturn abstentionism would have to pass twice over, first at the IRA convention and then at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a month later in October 1986. Failure at either point would leave their efforts dead in the water and themselves discredited, and so every trick in the book was tried to ensure that the new policy would go through on both occasions.
Fresh out of prison and newly appointed to the PIRA GHQ staff, Brendan Hughes found himself at a meeting between Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams in the lead-up to the convention. Looking back for an interview with White, Hughes admitted that he had been naïve to the manoeuvrings being conducted around him:
We met Ruairí, in a restaurant in Athlone. I know now why I was there. I was there to give Ruairí some sort of – or to give credence to what was going on. And that I was seen as the military person, I was seen as the soldier…I think I was used by the leadership – by Gerry Adams…to try and influence Ruairí.
Not that Ó Brádaigh was impressed. “That fucking man will not influence me,” he said in regards to Hughes, much to the latter’s bewilderment.
As it turned out, changing Ó Brádaigh’s mind proved to be not all that important. While few details are available for the IRA convention, held in secret as it was, the abstentionism policy had evidently been overturned, a fact used to great effect a month later at the Ard Fheis. There, Adams, as the Sinn Féin president, was able to announce to the delegates that their armed wing supported taking Dáil seats.
To those dissatisfied with this, he warned: “To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the struggle.”
Ó Brádaigh thought otherwise. When the move to drop abstentionism was voted through the Ard Fheis, he and a hundred other attendees walked out, reconvening to form a group of their own, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), with Ó Brádaigh as president until his retirement in 2009. For RSF, the war continued – as much within as without, being plagued with its own share of divisions.
The PIRA-Sinn Féin leadership had won the contest of 1986 but only after a hard-fought effort, and the residue bitterness was felt by many. One of those who had left in favour of RSF, Geraldine Taylor, recalled to White the shock of going from being:
…part of a big, big movement and all of a sudden you find yourself on your own. Friends stop speaking to you. It was a very lonely time.
What kept Taylor going was the cause she served and for which others had suffered:
They died for what I believed in and they died for what they believed in – the freedom of their country – and I couldn’t give it up. I had to keep going for their sakes, for their beliefs and for what they died for. But it was a very lonely time.
It is the personal stories like these that make this book such compulsive reading. Much of the book consists of White’s interviewees justifying their various decisions, acutely aware of the dim view many of their former peers might take of them. With the future of their country possibly resting on such choices, there was little room for error – or forgiveness from those who believed that the wrong calls had been made.
For Ó Brádaigh, 1986 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, having previously played a leading role in the 1969 split that saw the breakaway of the PIRA from the Official IRA, seemingly in response – so the usual explanation goes – to the turning of the republican old guard towards politics, as opposed to the armed action that their Provisional counterparts preferred.
But White is not one for pat answers, instead digging beneath surface of events. As he points out, the Officials were hardly peaceniks themselves. The primary motivation for that rupture was also the issue of abstentionism: the OIRA wanted to overturn it, which the faction that would form the PIRA vigorously opposed. It was a mirror picture of the subsequent split seventeen years later in 1986, with some such as Ó Brádaigh sticking to the same stance on both occasions, even while the rest of the movement reassessed and altered its own.
But location and cliques also played divisive roles in 1969. For one, the OIRA leaders lived around Dublin, and as such tended to keep to each other’s company. Their PIRA rivals tended to hail from outside the capital, in places as diverse as Roscommon, Longford, Limerick and Cork, and in their meetings together they formed opinions that differed from those of the Dubliners. Along with geographic differences, generational ones were at play in 1986, a matrix which White summaries as “pre-1969 Northerners; pre-1969 Southerners; post-1969 Northerners; and post-1969 Southerners.”
Don’t worry, charts are provided – keeping track of what’s what is enough to make one’s head spin, even with a learned teacher like White to take you by the hand through the morass of feuds and factions. White admirably keeps an impartial view throughout the book, allowing different sides to air their opinions – and grievances, as often as not.
Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that you could disagree with someone without making them an enemy. Each viewpoint is discussed, carefully and methodically, every possibility dissected and pored over – except that one.
Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.
As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:
I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.
As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:
Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.
For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.
This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).
An Extremist Speaks
Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:
Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.
Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.
Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.
Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.
‘Red with Anger’
For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.
When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”
“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.
Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.
Although O’Callaghan insisted this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult (not wholly convincingly), Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.
Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.
That Gang of Mine
Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”
The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?
Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.
Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.
He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”
Only One Army
When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.
Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.
Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.
By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.
As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”
He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.
On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”
The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.
Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.
The Army of the Republic
Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:
At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.
The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.
Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.
“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.
“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.
As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”
This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”
For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.
Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.
Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.
Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.
The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.
The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.
After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.
The First Glorious Day
Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.
“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”
Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!
This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.
“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.
Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”
After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.
Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.
As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.
To Fight or Not to Fight
Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.
After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”
When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”
In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:
On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.
No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.
And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.
The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.
He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”
Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.
Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:
Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.
Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.
I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.
The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.
Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”
That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.
He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:
The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.
The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.
This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.
As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.
In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.
The West Awakens
The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:
As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.
That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.
Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.
A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.
“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.
The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.
Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:
Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.
Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:
As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.
And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.
The Sligo Situation
The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.
Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.
Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.
Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.
It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.
Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.
Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.
Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.
There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.
Success in Sligo
This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.
As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?
After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.
He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.
As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.
The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.
A Death in Athlone
The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.
“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.
“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.
Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.
Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”
Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”
Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.
This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.
Securing the Midlands
Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.
While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.
When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.
At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.
Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.
Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.
Squabbles in the Dáil
Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.
The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.
But not all agreed on the solution.
Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:
At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.
Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:
De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.
Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.
De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.
As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”
An Impossible Situation
Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”
Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.
All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.
At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.
It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.
Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.
Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”
At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.
Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.
She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.
In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”
The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.
The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.
In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:
They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.
At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.
As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:
I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.
Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.
A Longford Wedding
Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.
Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.
Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.
But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.
Or perhaps not.
A Return to Sligo
Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.
Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.
Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.
Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.
It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.
Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.
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, 06/01/1921, p. 23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
 De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11
Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)
Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office )
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. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html
De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)
Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)
Shortly after 8 pm on the 12th January 1923, John C. Dinneen answered the door to his residence on Morehampton Road and found himself confronted by six youths, who seized and dragged him out, breaking the little finger of his right hand in the struggle. When he plaintively asked if he could at least put on his boots instead of the slippers he had, he was refused. The pistols brandished in his face deterred any further resistance – as they did to a couple of passers-by about to come to the rescue – and Dinneen was bundled into the waiting motorcar and driven away.
Blindfolded, Dinneen was closely questioned for over half an hour, at the end of which he was able to convince his captors that he was in fact John Dineen the insurance company official and not John Dineen the TD for East and North-East Cork. The kidnappers apologised for their error, explaining that they had been hoping to hold the other man in case any punishment was exacted on Ernest O’Malley, an imprisoned comrade of theirs.
The wrong Dinneen was allowed out of the car and left on the pavement, “somewhat shaken as a result of this trying experience,” as the Irish Times reported with masterly understatement.
‘His Exacting Adventure’
Dinneen was not the only kidnap victim that night, or even that same hour. Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, a member of the newly-formed Senate, was relaxing in his bath when his maid alerted him to the presence of four strangers on his doorstep – or, rather, right outside his bathroom, as the newcomers had followed the woman upstairs. Two remained on the stairs while the other pair entered the bathroom, where they ‘asked’ Gogarty to come along with them, his medical services purportedly needed for an injured friend of theirs.
Gogarty was not naïve enough either to believe them or think he had a choice. As with Dinneen, experiencing his own abduction at the same time, Gogarty was blindfolded and driven away. Catching a glimpse of his surroundings as the car stopped at a house by a river, the senator guessed he was in the Island Bridge district, next to the Liffey, an area he knew well.
He bided his time while under guard in the house. After requesting a breath of fresh air, he was led out to the yard by one of his captors. Steeling his nerves, Gogarty asked his unwanted companion to hold his heavy coat when he took it off. When the latter obliged by stretching out his hand, a revolver held in the other, Gogarty flung the coat over his head.
He plunged into the swollen Liffey, swimming with the icy current before dragging himself onto the bank with the aid of some overhanging bushes. Once again, the Irish Times knew exactly how to treat a terrifying ordeal with a light touch: “With the exception of some slight bruises about the head and face, Dr Gogarty was little the worse for his exciting adventure.”
His daring escape would become the subject of a number of comic verses. As a final indignity, Gogarty – as sardonically noted by Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Local Government – missed the chance to claim them as his own until too late.
Terrorism and its Countering
As the name-dropping of O’Malley would indicate, the kidnappers had been no common or garden-variety criminals. Nor had their victims been selected at random. Since November 1922, O’Malley – Assistant Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as O/C to its Northern and Eastern Division Commands – had been held in Mountjoy Prison following his capture in Dublin.
He had not been taken easily, going down in a blaze of glory and gunshots which had severely wounded him and killed a Free State soldier, but gone down he had all the same. Now he was facing a court-martial, the end result of which could only be the firing squad. If so, he would not be the first IRA prisoner to be put to death.
Ever since September 1922, when the Government had passed its Public Safety Bill – or the ‘Murder Bill’ as its intended victims dubbed it – the number of executions had grown from a trickle to a grimly steady number. Even notable names and famous figures from the war against Britain, such as Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, were not safe, both being executed in December 1922.
Such a measure was controversial even among the Government’s supporters but its ministers remained unapologetic. “Once civil war is started, all ordinary rules must go by the board,” was Blythe’s verdict. When threatened, the duty of the state, as he saw it, was “to supply sufficient counter-terror to neutralise the terror which was being used against us.”
On the other side, Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, was of the same opinion, the difference being that, as he saw it, it was the Anti-Treatyites who were using counter-terrorism against the sort used first by the Free State. He had taken to heart the danger O’Malley was in, as he told Éamon de Valera on the 10th January: “We are doing our utmost to take hostages to be dealt with if [O’Malley] is executed.”
To Lynch, he was merely fighting fire with fire: “We will have to deal with all enemy officials and supporters as traitors if this execution takes place. They mean to wipe out all the leaders on our side, so we had better meet the situation definitely.”
In line with this hard-edged policy, he wrote to Frank Henderson, the O/C of the Dublin Brigade. Tersely and crisply, Lynch instructed him that:
You will leave nothing undone to take three persons who are active supporters of MURDER BILL, prominent enemy officials or active supporters of FREE STATE as hostages. You will ensue they are persons we can execute, if enemy murder [O’Malley].
For Lynch, ruthlessness had come slowly, almost grudgingly. On the 12th September 1922, he had, while decrying the on-the-spot killings of unarmed IRA members, instructed against retaliations on “unarmed Officers or Soldiers of enemy forces.”
Three months later, he was issuing ‘Operation Order No. 14’, which called for “three enemy officers to be arrested and imprisoned in each Brigade area”, to be killed in turn for every IRA prisoner executed. By January, his Adjutant General, Con Moloney, was circulating a list of twenty-two Free State senators whose homes were to be destroyed, and the men themselves targeted, man for man, in the event of further POW death sentences.
Even some of the anti-Treaty leaders were troubled at this escalation, such as de Valera. As President of the Irish Republic, with Lynch as Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republic, the two men were, in theory, partners, each responsible for their own sphere, de Valera the political and Lynch the military. But the President felt it necessary to warn Lynch that his policy “of an eye for an eye is not going to win the people to us, and without the people we can never win.”
Lynch was unmoved. “We must adopt severe measures or else chuck it at once,” he replied, stressing that, up to now, the Anti-Treatyites had been blameless: “IRA in this war as in the last wish to fight with clean hands.” It was the enemy who “has outraged all rules of warfar”, and were consequently responsible for everything that ensued.
Meanwhile, inside the hospital wing of Mountjoy Prison, O’Malley himself was taking a resigned view of his predicament. When asked by a visiting Free State officer as to whether he required legal assistance with his trial-to-come, O’Malley replied that, as a soldier, he had done nothing but fight and kill the enemies of his nation and would do so again. No defence on his part was necessary, especially not for a trial with a foregone conclusion.
The only hope for a reprieve was for the prison doctor to declare him unfit for trial due to his still-healing wounds. His frail condition did concern O’Malley greatly, as he feared collapsing “at the trial through weakness, and the enemy may state I collapsed through funk.”
Communications between him and Lynch were possible through secret messages smuggled in and out of Mountjoy. Lynch reassured his captive colleague that: “I have great hopes that as a result of our action that your life will be spared as that of many others. I assure you nothing will be left be undone.”
That the need for such actions had come about in the first place was a source of great indignation to Lynch: “It is outrageous to bring you to trial under your present physical condition but they have done such barbarous acts that they may stop at nothing.”
The IRA finally bagged a catch on the 30th January when John Bagwell, a Senator in the Free State as well as Manager of the Great Northern Railway, was led away at gunpoint while walking home to Howth. The Free State authorities had been silent on the previous abduction attempts on Dineen and Gogarty but now that one had succeeded, Major-General Dan Hogan hastened to remove all doubt as to the consequences:
NOW WARNING is hereby Given that, in the event of the said Senator John Bagwell not being set, unharmed, at liberty, and permitted to return to his own home, within 48 hours of the date and hour of this Proclamation, Punitive Action will be taken against several associates in this conspiracy, now in custody and otherwise.
Published in the newspapers, this notice, with its undercurrent of menace, could scarcely be missed. Hogan underlined his intentions by gathering into Mountjoy about forty of the most prominent IRA prisoners. If anything happened to Bagwell, so said the unspoken threat, these would be first to feel the promised punitive action.
Punishment as Deserved
Lynch strove to be equally pugnacious. A letter of his own to the press, signed on the 1st February, a day after Hogan’s proclamation, warned that:
We hereby give notice that we shall not give up our hostages, and if the threatened action be taken we shall hold every member of the said Junta, and its so-called Parliament, Senate and other House, and all their executives, responsible and shall certainly visit them with the punishment they deserve.
This deadly game of brinkmanship was bloodlessly broken when Bagwell reappeared at the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Kept in a farmhouse, he had waited until the morning of the 6th February, when he had returned to his room after breakfast while his captors were busy eating theirs, carefully opening a window to climb out.
A cross-country runner, he was soon able to put some distance between him and his prison. After several miles of countryside, he chanced the highway and flagged down a motorist who drove him the rest of the way to Dublin. He departed for London the next day.
“It was stated that the Senator’s visit was strictly unofficial,” read the Irish Times, “and that for obvious reasons, he did not desire his whereabouts to be known.”
The Personal Touch
The campaign against Free State personnel continued, such as when Dr George Sigerson, the acting chairman for the Senate, resigned in early February 1923 after receiving a letter that threatened to burn his home down. Faced with such desertions, the Government hastened to stem the exodus and keep its representatives on board – and in line. Sometimes the personal touch was enough, such as when another senator was dissuaded from following Sigerson in resigning after a friendly heart-to-heart with Blythe.
Frank Bulfin was not treated quite so amiably. A group of three men – one of them being Joe O’Reilly, a former gunman in Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ – tracked down Bulfin after the TD for Leix-Offaly privately expressed his intentions to step down from his seat. According to Blythe, Buflin plaintively asked the trio if he was under arrest. They told him he was not, although the bulges in their coats that hinted that the revolvers beneath did nothing to reassure the TD. Nor did the following:
They told him it would be advisable for him to come to town. Bulfin thereupon entered to motor with them; and somewhere along the road they performed a charade, which certainly shook him.
They stopped the car and one of them proposed that they “shoot the oul’ bastard and have no more trouble with him”. Another agreed that it would be the simplest procedure, while a third, ostensibly more cautious, argued that Cosgrave would be so annoyed with them that they would be in endless trouble.
After what appeared to be a long wrangle, the fellow who was against such bloodshed seemingly succeeded in restraining the others, and Bulfin was put back in the motor car and brought to town.
By the time Bulfin was brought before President W.T. Cosgrave, Bulfin had obligingly changed his mind about quitting. “We had no other incidents of the kind,” Blythe noted coolly. “I suppose Frank’s story got round amongst the T.D.’s.”
Both sides were displaying a penchant for intimidation. The main difference was the Pro-Treatyites proved better at it. No further kidnappings were attempted after Bagwell. In light of Hogan’s threats, it can be speculated as to whether the senator was allowed to abscond in order to avert the promised ‘punitive actions’ without a complete loss of face. In the test of wills, with hostages used like human poker chips, the IRA had crapped out.
As it turned out, O’Malley would never be declared fit for trial, thus saved from a court-martial and an almost certain firing squad. But, even under the shadow of death, he never lost his composure, maintaining that in the big picture, he and his fellow POWs no longer mattered: “We are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” He was more concerned that others might “take the line of least resistance and surrender.”
Because not all of the imprisoned IRA officers had been as sanguine as O’Malley or as certain as Lynch that victory remained forthcoming. Breaking ranks, Liam Deasy had taken a step that not only forced the Anti-Treatyites to revaluate their chances but shook Lynch on a very personal level.
On the 9th February, under the headline REMARKABLE PEACE PROPOSALS, the Irish Times told of how Liam Deasy, the IRA Deputy Chief of Staff – having been arrested on the 18th January near Cahir, Co. Tipperary, and sentenced to death seven days later – had put his name to the following document.
I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –
I accept, and I will aid immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as requested by General Mulcahy.
(Signed) Liam Deasy
Accompanying this bombshell was a longer and more personal statement from Deasy to explain his decision. His calls for a surrender was not based on the fear of defeat, he wrote; indeed, Deasy insisted that the Anti-Treatyites could continue their military campaign for years. But so could the Free State and, with the Government policy of executions, the conflict was descending into “a vendetta, the development of which would bring family against family rather than soldier against soldier.”
He had been dwelling on this sordid situation for some time and had “decided that the interests of freedom would not be best served by continuation of hostilities, and was prepared to advocate a cessation on defined lines when prevented by my arrest.”
Remarkable Peace Proposals
Despite such stated doubts, Deasy strove to present a picture of a man very much unbroken. He blamed the coarsening of the conflict solely on the Free State in its treatment of POWs. While admitting that his action might appear inconsistent with his past gung-ho behaviour, he could “only trust that comrades with whom I have worked in the past will understand the motives which influenced this action of mine.”
Deasy concluded with a rallying cry for the future and the hope that things would work themselves out:
To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.
Regardless, one critical fact could not be disputed: a senior officer in the IRA had publicly collapsed, to use a word of O’Malley’s, through ‘funk’.
Others picked up on Deasy’s example. A signed statement from twelve prisoners held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to meet with their commanders still at liberty and discuss a possible end to hostilities. Sensing weakness, the Government offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty – signed by its Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – to enemy combatants on condition of them surrendering with their weapons on or before the 18th February.
A Satisfactory Position
Lynch replied swiftly and predictably. Delivered to the press on the 9th February, the day after Deasy’s statements were, Lynch’s written response was curtly matter-of-fact:
I am to inform you officially, on behalf of the Government and Army Command that the proposals contained in your circular letter on 29th January and the enclosure cannot be considered.
As in the case of all officers captured by the enemy, an officer has taken charge of [Deasy’s] recent command.
Privately, Lynch had a good deal more to say. In a personal letter addressed to Deasy, he lambasted his former confidant for impacting on a situation that had been, Lynch was sure, won in all but name:
Before you took action our position was most satisfactory from every point of view and that of the enemy quite the opposite. Your misguided action will cause us a certain set-back, but this will be got over and the war urged more vigorously than ever. It is clear you did not realise the actual fact and that at most you only took the local view into consideration.
Still, Lynch was not so enraged that he could not add: “Hoping that peace will soon be attained and that your life will be spared to the Nation.”
Lynch consoled himself with the thought that Deasy’s apostasy would have little effect on the rest of the IRA. In this, he was probably correct, in the opinion of his aide, Todd Andrews, if only because those still fighting had been benumbed to anything short of complete disaster.
When Christopher “Todd” Andrews received a summons to Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, to see his Chief of Staff, he could only wonder what for. That Lynch knew of his existence at all was a surprise in itself. The only time they had ever met – if ‘met’ was not too strong a word – was prior to the Civil War. Andrews had been performing clerical duties in the Four Courts as part of its IRA garrison when Lynch stuck his head into his office, giving Andrews a pleasant smile when he saw there was no one else there, and departed without a word.
Still, an order was an order. Not wanting to keep his superior waiting, Andrews set off from South Wexford where he had been serving as part of its IRA brigade. Rain had begun to fall by then, in early February, and Andrews and the driver assigned to take him were soon soaked to the skin. A flooded road ahead forced them to take shelter for the night, with Andrews ferried across the swollen Barrow River the next morning.
Brought to a large country house, Andrews found Lynch in the parlour, seated by a table heaped with papers. Even years later, Andrews still vividly remembered the appearance of his commanding officer:
Liam was a handsome, six-foot-tall man, oval-faced with a noticeably high forehead from which light brown hair was slightly receding, although at this time he was only twenty-nine years old. Being short-sighted, he wore thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles.
Despite their difference in rank, Lynch greeted the newcomer in a friendly manner, introducing him to the third man in the parlour, Dr Con Lucey. A licensed physician, Dr Lucey served as the IRA Director of Medicine while doubling as Lynch’s secretary and driver.
After some small talk and tea, Lynch got down to business. He planned on travelling to Cork ‘to pull the South together’, as he put it, and wanted Andrews to accompany him as his adjutant. Flattered by the offer, and more than a little awed by the other man, Andrews was surprised further when Lynch asked for his opinion on the state of the war.
Andrews had not thought his views as a mere rank-and-filer could be worth much. But he had had the chance to study the fighting in different areas and at various times, allowing him to draw a number of conclusions, which he provided unsparingly to Lynch:
As far as I had the opportunity to observe at first hand, the military situation was going very badly. Nothing, of course, was happening north of the [Ulster] Border and between Dublin and the Border, except for Frank Aiken’s men, the IRA had virtually ceased to exist. I told him that I thought the Dublin Brigade was so reduced in personnel as to be militarily ineffective.
I related my experiences of the South Wexford men and the high opinion I formed of their quality and morale, but my information was that there was nothing to be hoped from Carlow, Kilkenny or North Wexford.
Lynch took all of this in his stride. A ‘glass half full’ person, he chose to be encouraged by the compliments his new adjutant paid to the South Wexford IRA rather than consider too deeply the rest of what had been said. Lynch said he felt certain he could put things to right once he was based again in the South, the part of the country he was most familiar with.
Andrews was not so sure. That their Director of Medical Services was also sharing in the duties of Lynch’s Man Friday did not strike him as the best advertisement for their organisational abilities but that was one thought he kept to himself.
‘A Simple, Uncomplicated Man’
Lynch could take some solace from his toils in the company of his new adjutant. The two men quickly bonded, Lynch being amused at Andrews’ often sardonic commentary on rural mores, delivered in his thick Dublin accent. That Andrews was not afraid to voice his opinions allowed the normally reserved Lynch to open up – and he had a lot on his mind to say.
He did not hate his enemies in the Free State. Instead, he felt only sadness that they should have dishonoured their nation so. That Collins had signed the Treaty in the first place, and thus keep Ireland under the British Crown, was a source of horrified wonder to Lynch, as was the increasing savagery of the Free State in its shooting of prisoners.
As incomprehensible such behaviour was to Lynch, Andrews was equally baffled at how the Chief of Staff could be so oblivious to the severity of their military situation. “He had developed some mental blockage which prevented him from believing that we could be beaten,” Andrews concluded. Lynch expressed more concern at the insulting use of the term ‘irregulars’ towards his forces – as if name-calling was a step too far alongside executions and murder – than he did at the impending possibility of defeat.
To the self-consciously worldly Andrews, his commander was a study in innocence:
He had no sophistication in any field; he was a simple, uncomplicated man, believing in God, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints and, loving Ireland as he did, he had dedicated his life to her under God.
In keeping with such piety, Lynch would kneel to recite a decade of the Rosary every night before bed. Bitter at the clergy for their denunciations of the IRA from the pulpit, Andrews declined to join in these devotions, considering himself no longer a follower of Holy Mother Church. It was the only point of contention between the pair, with Lynch explaining to Andrews the distinction between the principles of the Catholic faith and the temporal politics by men of religion. 
The only indulgence Andrews saw Lynch partake of – besides excessive optimism – was a small whiskey in a roadside pub. Even that one occasion was the exception as, on every other time, Lynch had declined any alcohol offered in the houses he stayed in.
As promised, Lynch travelled south, Andrews by his side, leaving Leighlinbridge for the Nire Valley and then to the Glen of Aherlow, Co. Tipperary, where he was due to meet Con Moloney. A Munster man to the core, Lynch was invigorated by being back on home territory, the company of his own people a welcome tonic to the months of hardship and disappointment.
But there was no time for dilly-dallying. After four or five days in the Glen, with Moloney nowhere to be seen, Lynch took off for West Cork to put a dampener on some unauthorised peace talks he had caught wind of. He left Andrews with instructions to inform Moloney, when he finally appeared, of his decision to set up base in the South where he could continue directing the war.
When Andrews learnt that Moloney had been picked up in one of the National Army’s sweeps, he realised that Lynch’s plan of ‘pulling the South together’ from Tipperary was already defunct. Any IRA structure there had collapsed into a desperate struggle by individuals just to survive.
When Andrews rejoined the Chief of Staff in Ballinyeary, he found Lynch at a table surrounded by papers and maps, Dr Lucey typing away at a side table, much like their first meeting. As before, Lynch received him warmly. He was unsurprised at the loss of Moloney and also undismayed when Andrews reported on the general state of disarray amongst the Tipperary IRA.
Lynch refrained from mentioning – Andrews learnt this from Lucey instead – about his muster with the staff and officers – those who were left – of the First Southern Division on the 26th February. Not only had they told him facts he had no wish to hear, they had pressed him into something he had been putting off for some time.
The First Southern Division
One misunderstanding Lynch had been keen to correct to the assembled delegates from the Cork and Kerry brigades – fourteen in all, including him – was that it had been Éamon de Valera who had turned down their initial request for an Executive meeting. While Lynch stressed the relationship between the IRA and de Valera’s government-in-exile as a tight one, he left the others in no doubt as to which wing of the republican struggle held the upper hand.
“The President was of great assistance,” Lynch assured them, “but had no authority to interfere in Army matters and he (C/S) was alone responsible for summoning Executive.”
Lynch had postponed a second meeting of the IRA Executive – the first had been four months before in October 1922 – due to the importance, he said, of officers remaining in their own brigade areas with no distractions. Also, Lynch had been on the move and so missed the correspondence from the First Southern Division about their desire for an Executive session.
It was a wishy-washy response on Lynch’s part – he had turned down the chance for an Executive meeting, yet could not be blamed for not calling another – but the other men seemed to let it pass. There was, after all, more to discuss, which boiled down to two points: the reaction to the Divisional ranks to Deasy’s surrender appeal and the state of morale otherwise.
The good news was that it was unanimously agreed that the former had had little effect. The bad was that no one present, save for Lynch, thought they had a chance of surviving through the summer, let alone of winning.
Great Hopes for the Future
“If the enemy pressure is maintained we can’t last and will be wiped out in a short time” was the verdict from the O/C of the First Kerry Brigade. Whether large operations or smaller-scale reprisals, any action on his unit’s part was impossible given its poverty of resources compared to the Free State’s, whose “steam rolling of the South would soon finish us,” he gloomily predicted.
The Divisional Director of Operations was of like mind and spread some of the blame on the other areas: “The whole position of the South depends on the rest of the country and the relief it can give us. All Brigades agree a summer campaign is impossible and if the rest of the country fails we cannot exist.”
He also pointed that the National Army had recruited up to 20,000 extra men. The Free State could keep resistance in the South pinned down and still have the numbers to focus on the rest of the country.
Lynch took tall his naysaying in his stride. Having done his best listening impression, he told the others that he:
…quite realised the position in the South and the morale and suffering of the men and officers. It was in the South that the British were beaten and felt the attitude of the enemy towards the men who won the war for them. He reviewed the position in the rest of the country and although the position in the South was pretty bad he felt the situation in general was very good and held great hopes for the future.
He would not be continuing the war if he did not think they could win, Lynch assured them. None of those present appeared convinced, though no one had the gumption to openly doubt Lynch’s cheery forecast. Some instead took refuge in a grim fatalism, such as the O/C of the Third Cork Brigade who declared that his men would plough on “until beaten which is not far off.”
One common demand was for the overdue Executive meeting for which they had previously asked. That way, it was hoped that there could be a chance to clear the air and ask the necessary questions as to what to do next.
Lynch left the meeting with a certain amount of distaste for the outspokenness he had encountered. To him, such reluctance to keep quiet and press on was perilously close to mutiny. “What they mean by acting on their views, I cannot understand,” he complained in a letter to Con Moloney on the 29th February, three days after the pow-wow. “However, I hope we are now done with it.”
As for the doom and gloom on display, it had been for Lynch to endure, not seriously consider. Writing again to Moloney on the 2nd March, he said, unaware of how his recipient had five days left before capture: “I still have an optimistic view of the situation; if we can hold the Army fast all will be well.”
The Extracurricular Activities of Tom Barry
Another thorn in Lynch’s side was Tom Barry. P.J. Ruttledge, a prominent member of the Mayo IRA who spent much of the Civil War by Lynch’s side, remembered the celebrated hero of the famous West Cork flying column as being “always very annoying to Liam Lynch.”
His renown seemingly gone to his bushy head, Barry would sneer at others for their lack of pluck, while simultaneously insisting that the war was lost and it was time to surrender. While not incorrect, his abrasive manner did him no favours, and neither did the discovery that the Free State, according to Ruttledge, granted Barry carte blanche to travel as he pleased in the hope that he would win others to his point of view.
Frank Aiken, an Armagh-born member of the IRA Executive, also remembered how “Mr. Barry’s activities at that time [February 1923] were a source of great worry to the then Chief of Staff”, and that Lynch had written to Aiken, complaining at how “Barry is doing his worst here.”
Barry was assisted in ‘his worst’ by Father Tom Duggan, a priest broadminded enough to have been a chaplain in the British Army despite his staunchly republican views. This forbearance helped make Father Duggan liked and trusted by everyone, with the notable exception of Lynch, who made it clear both to the priest and Barry that no backtracking on the Republic was going to happen on his watch.
To punctuate the point, he wrote a strongly-worded letter, ordering his subordinate to cease and desist in his crusade for peace. The headstrong, increasingly independent Barry was proving to be, in his own way, just as much a nuisance as Deasy’s letter of surrender.
But, unlike poor, beaten Deasy, Barry was not someone Lynch could just brush aside.
‘A Tirade of Abuse’
Lynch probably assumed that his letter would be the end of the matter; that is, until the door to his bedroom for the night was kicked open, startling both him and Andrews. The adjutant’s first thought at seeing the figure in the doorway, a lighted candle in one hand and a sheet of papers in the other, was that the Free Staters had found them at last.
Instead, it was an incandescent Barry. He was waving the letter while demanding to know if Lynch had written it. When Lynch gave the briefest of answers in the affirmative, the floodgates opened:
Then followed a tirade of abuse from Barry mainly directed at asserting the superiority of his fighting record. Barry’s peroration was dramatic: ‘I fought more in a week than you did in your life.’ Liam simply said nothing. Having emptied himself of indignation, Barry withdrew, slamming the door.
Andrews could not help but laugh. It all seemed too much like something out of a theatrical comedy.
The mood between Barry and his nominal superior had scarcely improved when they met later in Ballingeary. When Lynch, Andrews and Dr Lucey arrived, they found Barry and Father Duggan, along with several others, already present on the other side of the street. The tension was palatable and, once again, Andrews drew comparisons to fiction, the scene resembling to him “a Western film where rival groups of ranchers come into some cowtown to shoot out their differences.”
Thankfully, the proceedings did not become that bad but, by the time the two parties withdrew, nothing between them had been resolved. There was no change in IRA policy, contrary to what Barry and Father Duggan had been pushing for, so in that regard Lynch had had his way – for now.
A Republican Itch
Barry’s frustrations did not stop him from being a consummate professional when called upon. Travelling on board a lorry with Lynch and his entourage to the Executive conclave, to be held once again in Co. Tipperary, Barry impressed Andrews with his care and dedication as he dismounted at every crossroads in order to ensure there were no ambushes-in-waiting. The mood inside the vehicle was a jovial one, the others amused at Barry’s take-charge attitude.
After stopping for the night, Lynch allowed a sickly-looking and careworn Andrews to stay behind. Like Deasy, Andrews had developed the ‘Republican itch’ or scabies, an infliction which Lynch remained serenely untouched by despite the two men sharing a bed. Quietly relieved at being spared a journey over the Knockmealdown Mountains, with the inevitable hell it would play on his sores, Andrews made no complaint and gratefully accepted the five-pound note Lynch handed him for expenses.
Before they separated for the last time, he and Lynch were able to enjoy one last chat. Lynch made it clear that he had not wanted the Executive meeting. He had not even wanted the Republican government-in-exile that the Anti-Treatyites had set up. Both bodies posed the danger that they would force some kind of compromise peace, the very last thing Lynch would ever agree to. Not that he was overly concerned, assuming as he did that whatever doubts and dissensions thrown his way would be brazened out.
Then Lynch dropped a bombshell. Andrews, he said, was to be assigned to take change of the West, where he was resting his hopes for a republican comeback. Having never held as much as a modest command nor even crossed the Shannon, Andrews could not help but wonder what Lynch was thinking:
I suppose I should have been flattered that the Chief of Staff should have viewed me in these favourable terms; I always thought that he regarded me as a reliable dogsbody, agreeable and sometimes amusing. On reflection, I didn’t take his remarks too seriously, feeling sure that with second thoughts he would realize the absurdity of the idea or, if not, someone would surely point it out to him.
Or so Andrews hoped. O’Malley had been equally flummoxed when Lynch assigned him to the organisation of the IRA in Ulster and Leinster, areas that he, like Andrews and the West, felt entirely unsuited for. Promoting people outside their comfort zones was clearly something of a habit for Lynch. Perhaps he saw only the best in them. Alternatively, he might have been lacking anyone else.
However, despite his perceived shortcomings, O’Malley had performed reasonably well under the circumstances. Andrews might have done just as well, so Lynch’s instincts could have been correct at least on those occasions.
The Executive Meets
On the 23rd March, the IRA Executive assembled at Bliantas, west of the Nire Valley. Due to enemy presence, the attendees were obliged to move deeper into the Valley on the 25th, where they continued in Glenanore until the 26th. For all the difficulties, a reasonably sized number had managed to attend, such as Lynch, Barry, Tom Crofts, Seán MacSwiney, Humphrey Murphy, Bill Quirke and Seán Hyde.
Also there was de Valera, although it first had to be agreed whether he could sit in on the conclave. The President of the Republic waited outside until votes were taken for his admission, albeit without voting rights.
Nothing better illustrated de Valera’s powerlessness and failure to be anything other than a reluctant observer. When Lynch received word in February 1923 that the president was attempting to again use his ‘Document No. 2’ as an alternative to the Treaty, he wrote sharply, warning de Valera that “your publicity as to sponsoring Document No. 2 has had a very bad effect on army and should have been avoided.”
It was the same line Lynch had taken with Deasy: it was all great until you complained, and now everything wrong is your fault. He added cuttingly to de Valera: “We can arrange peace without reference to past documents.”
For all the degradation he had so far endured, de Valera made the most of his opportunity before the Executive, proposing certain terms with which peace with the Free State could be negotiated. To the surprise of no one, Lynch was adamantly opposed, as convinced as ever that victory was achievable.
According to one second-hand account who heard about the meeting afterwards: “He was more determined now at the end of the war than at the beginning.”
When Barry raised a motion that “in the opinion of the Executive, further armed resistance and operations against the F.S. Government will not further the cause of independence of the country”, it was defeated by six votes to five. Lynch had provided the deciding vote.
Back in the IRA Convention of June 1922, it had been Barry who had helped scupper Lynch’s plans for a reunification of the sundered IRA, the last ditch effort for a peaceful solution. Now Lynch had returned the favour.
Once again, Lynch had sidestepped the doubts of others and ensured that, by concluding on nothing, the meeting would make no difference to the war effort. But that so many were leaning towards some – any – kind of compromise meant that Lynch was not as in control of the Executive as he would have liked.
His own Deputy, Frank Aiken, openly agitated for de Valera’s suggestions in a foreshadowing of the political relationship to come. Austin Stack’s contribution was to argue for the IRA to stop fighting, but not to end the war per se, without explaining how these two opposing concepts could be met. It was typical of the disarray and confusion afflicting the anti-Treaty command.
“It proved impossible to reconcile the divergent views held by members of the Executive,” was how Florence O’Donoghue, Lynch’s friend and biographer, put it.
In a strange sense, history was repeating itself. Lynch had also struggled to rein in his Executive in the months leading up to the Civil War. The main difference was that then he had been regarded as unduly moderate, a sell-out in the making. Now the roles had been reversed and it was Lynch who was rejecting any deviations from the straight and narrow, regardless of what others wanted.
Waiting for Miracles
For want of anything else to say, it was agreed to hold another Executive meeting for the 10th April. To many, this might have seemed like nothing more than the dragging out of the inevitable. For Lynch, it had bought enough time for the Western resurgence he had spoken about to Andrews to start making a difference.
Another iron in the fire was the field artillery Lynch was expecting. He had assigned Seán Moylan to the United States in November 1922 to act as a liaison officer with sympathetic Irish-American groups. The Americans were to raise the funds that would be passed on to Germany for the purchase and later transport of the weapons.
Lynch was specific in his requests – four mountain batteries of artillery, with four guns to a battery, and as much ammunition as could be bought. Lynch predicated to Moylan that these “would completely demoralise enemy and end the war,” envisioning how it would only take one such weapon, shared between the IRA, to do the trick.
Such was his certainty that he felt entitled to quibble over the cost. Professing himself surprised at how much money he was told would be needed, he instructed Moylan not to worry over quantity. After all, “a big cargo is not required; even a few, with sufficient shells, would finish up the business here.”
In the end, none of these miracle weapons ever appeared. Neither did the all-conquering legions from the West. Perhaps these failures would have finally convinced Lynch of the hard truth before him. Perhaps not.
In the fortnight before the next Executive conclave, Lynch took refuge in a number of safe-houses. The most impressive was a converted cowshed near Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary, artfully designed for concealment:
The whole building was about thirty feet long and ten wide, with corrugated iron walls and a roof partly of thatch and partly of corrugated iron. Access to the hiding place was from inside the cow shed, so that no trace led to it from outside, and the entrance was so cleverly constructed in what was apparently the inside of the end wall that it could not be opened except by one who knew the secret.
In the meantime, Tom Derrig was captured in Dublin on the 6th April, during which he was shot and wounded in the jaw. “It is understood that the authorities attach a considerable importance to Mr Derrig’s arrest,” wrote the Irish Times, as well the authorities might, for Derrig marked the fourth loss of an IRA Executive member, after O’Malley, Deasy and Moloney.
In a move more humiliating than harmful, but no less damaging, captured minutes for the First Second Division and the Executive meetings were published on the 8th April. The discord inside the anti-Treaty leadership between the die-hards, such as Lynch, and those who had had enough, like Barry and de Valera, were now exposed for all to see.
Before departing from his converted cowshed, Lynch had the heel of his boot fixed. A leather strap was found and used to bind his papers together. With these final details seen to, he and his party set off with a few others towards the meeting.
The group of six – Lynch, Aiken, Bill Quirke, Seán O’Meara, Jerry Frewen and Seán Hyes – reached the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, where they spent the night in a friendly house. At 4 am on the 10th April, the scouts posted outside alerted them to the presence of an enemy column on the road to nearby Goatenbridge, forcing them to relocate to another house higher up on the mountain of Crohan West.
When daylight came, the men looked down on the valley and saw that the Free Staters were now in sufficient numbers to form three columns. They were not overly concerned, assuming that the Pro-Treatyites were merely on a routine patrol and would soon pass by.
It was classic Lynch. He had been underestimating the opposite side and overestimating his own since day one. The IRA men were settling down for a cup of tea at 8 am when a sentry rushed in to tell them that one of the columns was heading directly for them.
On the Run
Seeking the high ground, the six men dashed towards Crohan West. With only two revolvers between them, Lynch sent word to the two scouts posted elsewhere to come and join them. One had a Thompson machine gun and the other a rifle, with the power and range to better their odds. While they waited at the head of the glen and with neither of the scouts yet to be seen, the Free Staters appeared over a rise.
As shots were exchanged, the Anti-Treatyites fell back towards Crohan West, taking advantage of the cover afforded by a shallow riverbed until they had no choice but to dash across open ground. Seizing their chance, the Free Staters fired at the exposed men as quickly as their rifles allowed from between three and four hundred yards away. Their targets shot back ineffectively with their revolvers, more to distract than out of any real hope of causing harm.
Lynch was already winded from the run, prompting Hydes to take him by the hand and hurry him along. The firing had abruptly ceased, as if both sides were holding their breath, when a single shot rang out. Lynch fell.
“My God! I’m hit, lads!” he cried.
Scarcely believing their foul luck, the others went to Lynch’s side. Seeing their targets grouping together, the Free Staters below renewed their volleys. With no time for anything else, the party carried their stricken leader, with one reciting, and Lynch repeating, the Act of Contrition. In terrible pain, his misery worsened by the motion, Lynch begged his companions several times to leave him until, saying – an optimist to the end – that the Staters might be able to bandage him.
Finally, the other five let him down and made the harsh decision to do what he said. Pausing only to pick up his gun and the documents, they continued in their flight across the mountain until finally out of sight and range.
“It would be impossible to describe our agony of mind in thus parting with our comrade and chief,” Aiken later wrote. He could not even bring himself to say farewell to Lynch lest the moment be too much. None of them see a reason why Lynch alone had been hit other than the implacable, inscrutable will of God. It seemed to Aiken as good an explanation as any.
“I am Liam Lynch”
Forcing their way through the thick undergrowth of brushwood that provided the only cover on that bleak mountaintop, the forty green-coated soldiers pressed on uphill. They found a man lying face up, cushioned by some shrubbery, his clothes dark with blood.
“Are you de Valera?” one of the soldiers asked him.
“I am not,” the stricken man replied. He sounded more weary than anything else. “I am Liam Lynch.”
Lynch had not even been spared the final indignity of mistaken identity, being confused with someone he had regarded as a figurehead at best, a nuisance at worst. He spoke little else as his captors carried him down the mountain in a litter to the village of Newcastle, where a priest and a physician administrated some spiritual and medical aid respectively. A National Army doctor who arrived soon after found two bullet wounds on either side of the wounded man, between his rib cage and hip, caused by the same bullet tearing through.
When the two doctors agreed that their patient would have to be moved to better facilities, an ambulance drove Lynch to the military ward of St Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel, where he died almost three hours later, just before 9 pm. Death was ruled to be a result of shock and haemorrhaging. He was twenty-nine.
Among Lynch’s last recorded statements was: “You missed Dev by a few minutes.”
Searching the area further, soldiers found in a nearby farmhouse an assortment of clothing items such as hats and coats. It was concluded that the anti-Treaty conference had been in the process of assembling, and that if the National Army had struck half an hour later, it might have caught more than the one man they did.
Still, it was no less a significant catch. “The death of Liam Lynch removes one of the most important – if he was not actually the most important – of the leaders of the Republican party,” wrote the Irish Times, which described him as “the most obstinate and unflinching of the Government’s opponents.”
“Poor Liam, God rest him,” wrote O’Malley from Mountjoy, two days later on the 12th April. While he was sure that Aiken would do well as the new Chief of Staff, Lynch had had:
…an intimate knowledge of the South and a general knowledge of the personnel in all areas which Aiken has not and would not have for another twelve months, so really there is no one fit to step into his shoes. It’s the biggest blow by far we have received.
The difference between the two men would become even more apparent by the end of the month, when Aiken, working in tandem with de Valera, signed an order for the suspension of hostilities, to take effect on the 30th April. Meanwhile, de Valera was opening negotiations with the Free State.
Even when this political outreach proved fruitless, Aiken showed no desire to return to the fighting. On the 24th May, he ordered all IRA units to dump their weapons, signalling the end of the Civil War at long last.
Aiken intended for this to be a respite, not a surrender. “They are quite wrong if they think they have heard the last of the IRA and the Irish Republic,” he wrote to Lynch’s brother on July 1923. Lynch would have been horrified all the same but Aiken, unlike his late predecessor, was able to differentiate between what he wanted and what was possible.
 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. 340
It did not appear inevitable – even when the first of the 18-pound shells struck the embattled Four Courts – for the hostilities in Dublin to run over into a country-wide war. True, the capital remained a battleground, with the Irish Times telling of how its streets, a week after the hostilities had begun, “are still swept by sniper’s bullets and machine-gun fire, and the centre of the city is the scene of a heavy battle.”
Still, the newspaper did not think all this would amount to anything beyond a brief, limited affair. After all, the National Army could claim control of Mullingar, Athlone, Longford and Trim. The expected hotspots of Cork, Kerry, Limerick and Tipperary remained demur, while the anti-Treaty posts in Drogheda and Donegal had fallen. As far as the Irish Times was concerned, the Free State had already won:
The moral effect of its success in Dublin will be incalculable, while the prestige and experience which has been gained by the Army will be valuable assets to the national cause. With remarkably few military causalities, the back of the stubborn rebellion has been broken, Ireland’s youthful Army has won its spurs.
Which is not to say the opposing side was entirely done. There were remnants of it yet in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street and the odd marksmen aiming down from the tops of buildings. Meanwhile, reports were had of more ‘Irregulars’ mustering southwards towards Blessington, Co. Wicklow. But what could these desperadoes really hope to achieve?
While these men may be able to embarrass the Government for a while by raids from the Dublin Mountains, they are not likely to constitute anything in the nature of a serious menace to the State. If there have been an attempt to bring about a general rising throughout the country, it has failed.
The Irregulars hold a few isolated positions, but the Government’s writ is running in every one of the twenty-six counties to-day.
Dublin’s slow return to normality gave some credence to this upbeat forecast. Shops were reopening, food deliveries had resumed and workers could be seen returning to their offices. But, as it happened, the ‘rebellion’ had not been broken, its partisans remained as stubborn as before, and a fumbling National Army would struggle to keep a grip on the spurs it had only just earned.
A Bloody Phoenix
By August, it was not clear if any writ by the Government was in effect even in its capital city. The Four Courts had fallen, with much of its garrison led off into captivity, but the conflict showed no signs of diminishing, merely shifting into a less tangible presence.
No longer would the Irish Republican Army (IRA) occupy buildings and provide big, convenient targets to be battered into submission by artillery. When the Anti-Treatyites fought back, it was with slower, more gradual methods, the sort that had served so well in the war against the British. For the past two and a half years, from the start of 1919 to the Truce of July 1921, the IRA had used the techniques of the guerrilla to fight Crown forces to a standstill. There no reason to believe they would be any less effective against the new, indigenous foe.
Such recovered elusiveness was displayed on the 1st August 1922, when several shots were fired at National Army men on duty outside the Four Courts Hotel at 10 pm. Almost an hour later, further shots were aimed at soldiers standing in Brunswick Street. None were injured but, despite vigorous searches, no one was arrested either. This method of surprise assaults, sprung almost simultaneously in separate parts of the city, was to be repeated over the subsequent weeks, to the point of becoming an IRA hallmark.
The night of the 1st September was only one such occasion, when attacks were launched on several different National Army patrols, between 10 and 12 pm. Soldiers stationed in the Technical School on Lower Kevin Street found themselves sniped at from nearby streets. The Four Courts Hotel was again raked with bullets from a machine-gun on the other side of the Liffey. One Pro-Treatyite was wounded, with another narrowly avoiding worse when his cap was struck off his head. At the same time, shots were made against the soldiers by City Hall.
In another part of the county that night, a small National Army guard in the schoolhouse at Rathfarnham managed to drive off an attack that lasted twenty minutes. The assailants paused in their retreat to set fire to the local police barracks. It was the second time the building had been so mistreated, the previous occasion being as part of the war against Britain. Other than that, the only causality in Rathfarnham was a wounded Pro-Treatyite unlucky enough to have been shot and wounded in the abdomen just before the assault began.
“Sniping occurred in other localities, and the shooting was continued until after 1 o’clock in the morning, when only spasmodic outbursts were heard,” reported the Irish Times. “The troops were very active in the streets, stopping and questioning those who were moving about late at night.”
Explosions in the City
Active or not, such ex post facto searches were inadequate in preventing subsequent incidents. On the 13th September, at 3 pm, a bomb was thrown in the path of a lorry carrying National Army men as it drove along Eden Quay. Two of the Pro-Treatyites were reported to be slightly wounded in the blast, along with some unfortunate bystanders.
Later that day, a little after 6 pm, three more military lorries were passing by St Stephen’s Green West when some men who had been loitering behind the park railings pulled out pistols and opened fire. The mass of civilians fled for the shelter of nearby shops and laneways, the noise of the gunshots being briefly drowned out by the detonation of bombs cast into the fray.
It was later estimated that three such explosives were used altogether, one thrown by the group in St Stephen’s Green, the other two from a twin ambush party next to the College of Surgeons. Unscathed, the Free Staters leapt off their vehicles and gave chase through the greenery of the park, pursuing some if their fleeing assailants into Dawson Street and others to Lower Leeson Street. One ambusher was overtaken and arrested, the only other causality besides three civilians wounded in the mayhem.
‘The Most Nerve-Racking Cork Has Experienced’
A similar picture was unfolding in Cork. Initially, Major-General Emmet Dalton had been pleasantly surprised at the lack of resistance when he led pro-Treaty forces into the city on the 10th August 1922. He felt confident enough to crow to his superiors that the enemy had been “crowded into positions of a barren nature and without a base for supplies.”
Soon enough, however, Dalton, like countless conquerors before and since, was to find out that taking a place is quite different to holding it.
On the night of the 14th August, a number of bridges to the north and west of Cork City were destroyed under the cover of darkness. The IRA had been imitating a similar move on the 5th August by their Dublin comrades, although whereas the Dubliners had badly botched their operation, suffering heavy losses, the Corkonians had been far more successful.
Twelve days later, the evening of the 26th was to be described by the Cork Examiner as “one of the most nerve-racking that Cork has experienced for quite a long time.” The sounds of revolvers and machine-guns reverberated through the streets, convincing many in the suburbs that a major battle was taking place in the urban centre. When morning came and the stock was taken of the situation, it was shown that the IRA, true to form, had been active at different points.
First attacked had been the old police barracks on College Road, the only such building not razed during the flight of the Anti-Treatyites from the city. Bombs had shattered the unprotected top-storey windows, the lower ones only surviving due to their steel shutters. But the besiegers had not had everything their own way, with four of their number captured when the garrison emerged in a surprise counter-attack.
No Speedy End
The next assault was on the train station at Albert Quay shortly after midnight. This was not the first time it had been shot at, having been the target of snipers before, but this was the most determined enfilade so far, as gunmen positioned in the ruins of City Hall and the Carnegie Library opened fire, to be returned by Pro-Treatyites from across the river. The guerrillas pulled back but, as the Cork Examiner described:
…their retreat did not mean the end of the firing. Volley after volley rang out in various parts of the city later in the night, and it was assumed that small parties of irregulars and patrols of the National troops came into contact at many places during the early hours of the morning.
Meanwhile, Corks most famous son, Michael Collins, was lying in state in Dublin, slain while driving out of his home county. There had been hopes among his colleagues, as Ernest Blythe described, “that the Civil War would speedily end as major resistance was broken.” Instead, the conflict began to resemble a lingering disease, one that the country could not quite shake off.
The Free Staters achieved some success in Cork on the 2nd September, when a secret munitions factory was uncovered in a house on the corner of South Mall and Queen (now Father Matthew) Street. Bombs, ammunition and, most critically, the machinery with which to churn out more such munitions were found. While a blow had been struck against the insurgency, the very fact that the IRA had been able to set up such a factory in the heart of the city was an uncomfortable reminder of just how tenuous the Free State’s grip really was.
Such a loss did little to hinder the Corkonian guerrillas as far as could be ascertained. On the 18th September, Moore’s Hotel was raked with machine-gun bullets from across the river. The Pro-Treatyites on duty returned shots with a heavy firearm of their own, the exchange lasting for five minutes, during which an elderly woman was struck eight times while sitting by a window. As she recovered in hospital, the wounds were judged to be superficial but the woman remained in critical condition, suffering from – unsurprisingly – shock.
‘No Zeal – No Dash’
By early November 1922, Dalton was reporting to the Minister of Defence, General Richard, Mulcahy, that he was “beginning to lose hope…there is no zeal – no dash – no organisation or determination.”
Public support had waned to the point that Dalton believed there were more republicans in Cork than there had been during the June election. He blamed the lack of boots he had on the ground, citing how one could travel seventy or eighty miles through the county without coming across a single National Army man.
His warning to Mulcahy was stark: “In Cork, we are going to be beaten unless we wake up and at once.”
Dalton was suffering from morale problems of his own. He had left for Dublin in late September to be wed, returning to his command with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. November saw him abruptly handing in his resignation, leaving the top brass uncertain with whom to replace him. Two applicants were rejected in turn by the Cork officers, suspicious as they were of outsiders, with a third refusing the offer.
The Quartermaster-General, Seán Ó Muirthile, finally agreed to take over in January 1923, albeit on a temporary basis. His reticence was understandable in light of how he had only narrowly avoided death the month before, when a grenade was thrown at his car in Dublin, hitting him on the head but rolling out of harm’s way before it could explode.
The war appeared to be at a stalemate, the Free State unable to deliver the killing wound, while the IRA lacked the strength and numbers to do more than chip at the new government. The impasse was threatening to drag both armies down into a morass of lethargy.
When Father Dominic O’Leary, a priest with republican sympathies, wrote to Ernie O’Malley in Dublin on the 12th September 1922, he told with some amazement about the large number of men he saw outside the recruitment office for the National Army on Brunswick Street. When asked, they had told the padre that since the war was as good as over in their view, they might as well sign up for pay at minimal risk.
Father O’Leary suggested to O’Malley that a few bullets be fired over their head to disabuse them of such blithe notions. If that failed, then some more shots, and not as a warning, were called for. “Why not fire, if we are in earnest?” the priest asked bitterly.
Meanwhile, O’Leary said:
I am mixing with the people, our own people who are daily asking what is being done, with the enemy who are gloating that Dublin is finished and the rest of the country will soon be the same, with the members of the IRA who are ‘fed up’ with enforced idleness, with their dependants who make no complaint except that the boys are being arrested and are doing nothing, that the enemy and his spies are being allowed such latitude.
It was unlikely that O’Malley needed any backseat generals to point out how ‘fed up’ everyone was. He had been pushing for more aggressive tactics for some time but to no avail, stymied by his more cautious Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch, who preferred his warfare on the conservative side. “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics,” Lynch wrote in reply to O’Malley’s impatience.
O’Malley might have taken solace with how the other side was not faring much better. The promised wages that had tempted many into the National Army were frequently tardy. Much needed equipment also had the habit of not materialising.
One colonel admitted that the quarter-mastering “was simply diabolical…I had two enemies, one was the Irregulars and the other was the QMG [Quartermaster-General].” Soldiers resorted to dyeing their civilian clothes green for want of proper uniforms, or purchasing khaki cloth with which to make improvised uniforms.
This deadlock was recognised as such by the special correspondent for the Irish Times. Writing on the 20th September, he described how “ever since the radical change in strategy made by the irregulars in August it has been increasingly difficult for the national Army to strike any blow of immediate effect.”
The reverting by the IRA to guerrilla warfare – the change of strategy noted by the journalist – denied the Free State military the chance to bring its superior numbers and firepower to bear. Instead, its upper echelons had tried to adjust accordingly:
Faced by this change, the commanders of the National Army determined to adopt a plan of campaign which should have been suitable. Towns were garrisoned with posts of varying size to keep the irregulars from supplies, mobile columns organised to pursue the enemy in their fastness and “sweeps” organised to clear areas where the irregulars were dispersed in small bodies.
‘Should’ was the operative word here. Problems facing this bold innovation included the poor training and inexperience of many junior officers, compounded by insufficient transport for these proposed sweeps.
Fatigue increasingly plagued the pro-Treaty forces as well as the country as a whole. “We were losing the support of the people, our men were war weary and the going was too heavy for us,” remembered Padraig O’Connor, later the Director of Operations to the National Army. It was not until February 1923 that some semblance of order took shape but, until then, “our men had no grub, no uniforms and no pay.”
Todd Andrews had these small victories in mind in later years as he tried to make sense of where his side had gone so badly wrong. He could not help wondering if things would have been different if his fellow Anti-Treatyites had mustered several large commando teams with which to deliver a knock-out punch. True, “our morale was very low, but if we had the wit to realize it, the morale of the Free Staters, put to the test, was no better.” The rapid collapse of the National Army in Kilkenny was surely proof of that.
But inertia was as much a danger as bullets and prison. Even areas where the Anti-Treatyites were strongest – namely Cork, Kerry and Tipperary – could not escape the creeping sense of helplessness as more and more high-ranking officers were lost to enemy raids. Though their vacant positions were filled readily enough, the hard-won knowledge these men had provided could not be so easily replaced.
For a while, in the latter months of 1922 and early 1923, it seemed likely that the war would be decided by whichever side fell apart first.
Such frustrations fed into the burgeoning hopes among both armies that they could escape the quagmire they were in via the much less painful method of negotiation. But, as far as many in the Free State Government was concerned, however, such consideration was at best wishful thinking, at worst defeatism. Blythe recalled how:
Individual Commanders in various areas, instead of pursing the war with full vigour as they ought to have done, were inclined to try to make contact with their opposite numbers and enter upon discussion. This seems to have extended, with the exception of a few higher officers, right through the top ranks of the Army.
It got to the point that the Cabinet had to hold a meeting to rule out even the thought of negotiations. There would be no further dialogue with the Anti-Treatyites save when it came to accepting their surrender. The National Army from now on would throw its energy towards final victory – at least, in theory.
At a subsequent Cabinet session, the Minister of Defence, Mulcahy, tried to open with an awkward joke: “Let everyone put his gun on the table.”
Perhaps such an attempt at humour was a disguise for nerves. As Ernest Blythe sat at the opposite end of the table, waiting for the last of his colleagues to straggle in late, he was curious as to what Mulcahy had to say that was so important to call this urgent meeting.
Mulcahy proceeded to inform them that he had made arrangements some time ago to meet de Valera. This had been before the Cabinet decided against any further tête-à-têtes with the enemy. Mulcahy had been present when the choice was made. He had apparently agreed in full, only to go straight out of the Government building and into his car, to the rendezvous with Éamon de Valera as originally intended.
Mulcahy gave an outline of the forbidden talk, though most of the room was too shocked to pay much attention. When Mulcahy finished, there was only an uncomfortable silence. “All of us realised that the only thing that it was proper to say was that General Mulcahy must hand in his resignation,” as Blythe remembered.
But given that the Government was on a war footing, with none of them besides Mulcahy knowing much about military matters, nobody felt confident in taking such a step. Mercifully, President W.T. Cosgrave broke the oppressive silence with a curt “That’s all” and left the room, followed by the rest of his Cabinet.
Nothing else was said. Mulcahy never entirely recovered his standing in the Cabinet, at least not where Blythe was concerned. “Personally, I may say that the whole incident affected my mind very deeply in regard to General Mulcahy, and I never had full confidence in him afterwards.”
Striking a Bargain
Within the upper echelons of the other side, there were similar thoughts and fancies towards sidestepping the need for further violence. On the 28th September, Con Moloney, the Adjutant General to the IRA Executive, took the daring step of posing to his colleagues a pair of questions that many of them must surely have pondered already, if not quite so openly: “Will or can the enemy beat us? Can we beat the enemy?”
The answers to both, in Moloney’s estimate, was an emphatic ‘no’.
What then, he asked, was the alternative? For now, the IRA had to maintain a steady course until the Free Staters were willing to talk. At which point, Moloney wrote: “We will be able to strike a hard bargain.”
Anticipating the outcries, Moloney took a suitably no-nonsense tone: “There is no use blinding ourselves to the past. Negotiations are bound to come sooner or later.” For Moloney’s part, he would be in favour of ending the war under the following guarantees:
Any future Ministers of Defence to be nominees of the reunited Army.
The Chief of Staff to be elected by a convention, where attendance would be restricted to IRA members from before the 1921 Truce.
The Army to be controlled by an Executive and an Army Council, both bodies also to be elected at conventions.
The Executive to have the right to declare war and peace. The Government could also exercise these same powers but subject to approval of the Executive.
All the talk of conventions was a throwback to the months preceding the Civil War, when the anti-Treaty IRA had displayed their independence in the holding of three such gatherings, where issues had been debated without outside interference or supervision. What Moloney equated to a ‘hard bargain’ would be in effect a surrender by the other side. After all, the Free State was not waging a war in order to submit itself to the dictates of its own military.
In contrast, Liam Lynch made plain his preference for the simpler, might-makes-right approach. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy,” he told Liam Deasy, one of his closest confidants, in early September. “We should strike our hardest for some time, and this would make the question of policy easier to settle.”
Unlike Moloney, Lynch had little faith in the prospect of talks. Much had already been suggested by one party or another and none had amounted to anything. When Éamon de Valera was making his way to see Deasy in Co. Cork in late August 1922, Lynch sent a dispatch ahead to warn Deasy not to encourage the other man in any of his schemes on how best to end the war, ideas that Lynch clearly had not the faintest interest in.
Lynch had not always thought that way. Even after the assault on the Four Courts, Lynch had nurtured the hope that the Pro-Treatyites could be made to see reason. Only after the ceasefire in Limerick he had helped sign was thrown on the scrapheap by the Free State was he convinced that this would be a fight to the finish. It was a course he would remain on unswervingly, taking with him the rest of his army for as long as he drew breath.
Still, he did nothing to reprimand Moloney. Neither did he discourage the possibility of negotiations – for now.
Meeting the Enemy
Colonel Tom Ennis and Captain Charles Russell, both senior officers in the National Army, had already cut striking figures in the conflict. The latter had flown a Bristol fighter plane over the town of Buttevant, Co. Cork, while using a machine-gun to strafe an enemy-occupied house, swooping low enough for the return bullets to pierce his airplane.
As for Ennis, he had led the first of the National Army soldiers into Cork City on the August 1922, brushing aside the few IRA defenders on the way. Ennis proved as chivalrous as he was formidable, as his subsequent refusal to have any prisoners executed, in defiance of Free State policy, ensured that Cork would remain unsullied by this grim measure.
Ennis was thus a fitting choice to play peacemaker. He had tried before, while assisting his then-commanding officer, Emmet Dalton, shortly after their capture of Cork. But this initiative had fallen through due to the insistence by the Free Staters on an unconditional surrender. When Deasy reported this to his Chief of Staff, Lynch did not doubt that the two men had been acting on their Government’s orders but was baffled as to why they did not contact him directly, the idea that anything could be accomplished outside the proper chain of command being anathema to him.
By the time of another outreach attempt on the 13th October 1922, Ennis was feeling more broadminded. After being given safe passages, Deasy and Tom Barry drove to a neutral house near Crookstown, Co. Cork, to meet Ennis and Russell (there was no mention of any involvement by Dalton this time). An IRA intelligence officer, Seán Hyde, accompanied the other two Anti-Treatyites. Later appointed the O/C of the Western Command, Hyde would furnish Lynch with the sort of overly optimistic reports that Deasy blamed for feeding Lynch’s misplaced determination to fight on.
As well as the four military men, Father Tom Duggan was present at the talks. Liked and trusted by both sides in the Treaty divide, the priest would continue to play a prominent – and, for Lynch, largely unwelcome – role in subsequent peace attempts. Such talks would become a taboo subject with Lynch, who did his utmost to stamp them out, convinced that they were a detriment to morale. For the moment, however, he was content to grant the authorisation to give them a chance.
The meeting did not enjoy the most amiable of starts. Deasy began by telling the Free State pair that tempers were running hot on his side due to the legislation being put through the Dáil, establishing military courts with the power of execution for unauthorised possession of arms, a move clearly aimed at POWs. Such was the mood of the Anti-Treatyites, Deasy warned, that they had decided on reprisals against those held responsible.
Despite this sobering opening, the rest of the talks were conducted in a friendly manner. When it was time to depart, the opposing sides did so in good spirits, Russell taking the time afterwards to drive the two enemy envoys through the Free State sentries.
A Role for Politics?
Another question to consider was where Éamon de Valera fitted in. Joseph O’Connor had already conferred on the matter with the former President of Dáil Éireann at the outbreak of the war in the former’s York Street headquarters. While the battle enfolded in the city centre, O’Connor, an officer in the Dublin IRA as well as part of the IRA Executive, tried persuading de Valera of the political and propaganda benefits if:
They could set up a Republican Committee to take the benefit of the Army successes and force them on the attention of the ordinary people. This, I was sure, would be good for the Nation and the fighting men.
De Valera was not so sure. He understood enough about the Executive to know that the IRA officers making it up would resent an interloper like him. He eventually agreed to give O’Connor’s notion a try, or at least bring it to the attention of the other anti-Treaty leaders who were holed up in the Hammam Hotel on Sackville Street. O’Connor gave him a guide to help him through the Free State cordon to the Hammam.
“I never heard what happened to the proposal, nor how it was received,” O’Connor later wrote. He was not too concerned, sure as he was that all the IRA had to do was press on and the Pro-Treatyites would come to their senses. When that did not happen, it was decided that the Dubliners should abandon their posts and revert to the old methods of insurgency. “What a pity it was that we lost those few first days in Dublin!” O’Connor later complained.
At first, it was hoped that they could keep the Free Staters confined to the city. When that too did not come to pass, and the IRA elsewhere in the country went on the defensive, O’Connor feared that the Republic would be lost without a means to rally the masses to its cause.
He saw a chance when he received word that Lynch had called for a session of the Executive, set to take place in Tipperary town in October 1922. O’Connor had been pressing de Valera to take up the political reins as they had discussed before. For hours at a house in Stillorgan, he entreated de Valera to find some kind of formula they could use, but to little avail. Pulling on his overcoat as he prepared to leave, O’Connor implored the other man to give the question some further thought.
Over the Galtees
They met again in Upper Mount Street, just before O’Connor set off for Tipperary, and de Valera handed him some proposals:
These followed the original lines – the political party accepting responsibility for all matters outside the actual direction of the fighting forces in the field; the Army Authorities to work in conjunction with the elected republican representatives and to give them the full co-operation in maintaining the freedom of our whole country.
Pleased, O’Connor promised he would deliver these to the Executive. Travelling by train to Limerick Junction, he walked the rest of the three miles to Tipperary town. Arriving at the safe-house prepared in advance, he learnt that the meeting had been postponed due to the presence of the enemy who were housed in the town’s barracks, a stone’s throw away from where O’Connor was staying. The Anti-Treatyites were having to survive while cheek-by-jowl to those who would capture or kill them on sight.
He whiled away the time, staring idly into the barrack square, until being picked up that night by two others who were to guide him to the new meeting place in the Glen of Aherlow. As they crossed the Galtee Mountains, a sudden fog forced them to wait until it cleared. When it did, “we got a beautiful view of the Golden Vale. It was surely a land worth fighting for.”
O’Connor arrived to find a number of his colleagues already there. That he was wearing a hard hat in the mountains struck them as hilariously incongruous. When Lynch appeared, the others noticed that their Chief of Staff had lost weight, his normally thin face bonier than ever.
Lynch had come by pony and trap, accompanied by P.J. Ruttledge, the Vice O/C for the IRA Western Command. They also encountered the thick mist on the way. “We couldn’t see the road over the mountains,” Ruttledge wrote. “Sometimes we were on it, other times not. We half walked, half wandered.”
En route, the two men had passed through Carlow. When the senior IRA officer there asked what they would do if stopped by a Free State patrol, Lynch had pulled out a gun in response. “I’ll know what I’ll say,” he said.
The Executive Meets
That display of bravado seemed to set the tone for the subsequent gathering. Spread out over the course of two days, the 16th and 17th October 1922, the sessions of the IRA Executive were notable in the steely determination on display. Indeed, to an onlooker, it might have appeared that the Civil War had already been won and all that was left was the settling of affairs, with a confident eye to the future.
First on the agenda was the defence of Lynch’s good name, an issue on which Lynch seemed incapable of moving past. Acting as chairman, he explained to the others how he had been brought before Eoin O’Duffy immediately after the attack on the Four Courts, a little under four months ago.
This interview with the enemy general had been used to cast him “in a very dishonourable light by Free State propaganda”, which alleged that Lynch had talked himself out of imprisonment by promising to remain neutral. When the war was over, Lynch assured his audience, he would insist on the event being properly examined.
That he would be in a position to demand anything was taken for granted. In any case, the topic moved on to one more useful: the results of the talk Deasy and Barry had had with the two National Army representatives. There, Captain Russell had proposed:
The disbandment of both armies.
A formation of a Volunteer Army under an agreed Independent Executive, whose officers would be pledged to force the Government to delete the more objectionable elements from the Free State Constitution within a stated time.
The new Army to be servants of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned, e.g. law and order.
No further Minister of Defence.
In place of the aforementioned Minister, a staff commander would liaison with the Government when necessary.
A police force to be modelled on the Canadian system, as in one man appointed in each town who could call on the civil population for assistance if need’s be.
(The last point was something of an oddity. It may have been influenced by memories of the Royal Irish Constabulary, and perhaps by a desire not to follow in the footsteps of the Free State in its attempt at a centralised police force of its own.)
Russell had told Barry and Deasy that, upon his return to Dublin, he would present these proposals to Mulcahy as the Minister of Defence. If this failed, he promised to agitate for defections among like-minded souls in the National Army.
Notably, this last part of Russell’s – “to leave the Free State Army” – was crossed out by Lynch in the Executive minutes and replaced with “to force the issue with M/D [Minister of Defence]”. Lynch had striven to keep the IRA intact in the months before the Civil War, and it seems that he remained true to this principle even now. Any new army would come as a whole, not fractured, one.
The hope that the Free State would simply cave in on itself was nurtured among its opponents, particularly when victory by any other means had become distinctly unlikely. Even the Eeyore-ish Liam Deasy, looking on gloomily as the war effort collapsed around him, had dared to believe that “the separatist element in the Free State Army…would see the futility of reimposing English domination, what many of them had fought to break.”
Following points discussed by the Executive in reference to Russell’s proposals were:
The Army to be reorganised to how it had been prior to the signing of the Treaty in December 1921.
A Provisional Executive, pending the appointment of an Executive at the annual convention.
The Constitution must be formed so as to definitely exclude Ireland from the British Empire [in other words, the negation of the Treaty].
The Army was to be the servant of the Government only in so far as the better governing of the country was concerned.
The second day was spent mostly on fine-tuning what had already been laid down. An Army Council was formed, headed by Lynch (as Chief of Staff) and made up of Ernie O’Malley (Acting Assistant Chief of Staff), Liam Deasy (Deputy Chief of Staff), Tom Derrig (Assistant Adjutant General) and Frank Aiken, the only one of them not present that day. This body was empowered by the rest of the Executive to discuss terms of peace in so much that would not bring Ireland back into the British Empire.
What to do with the instruments of the Free State was also discussed. As for the fledgling police force in the form of the Civic Guard, it was decided to postpone any definite decision until more was known about it. The same went for the magistrates and civil administration, which could still be of some use. The newly found, if outlandish, interest in the Canadian way of policing was put on the backburner – for good, as it turned out, as it was never raised again.
Another proposal from Moloney – though presumably O’Connor had talked to him about it beforehand – urged, on behalf of the Executive, for the absent de Valera to form a government, one which would preserve the continuity of the Republic:
We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic, and we empower it to make an arrangement with the Free State Government, or with the British Government provided such arrangement does not bring the country in to the British Empire.
In case anyone was unclear as to who would be calling the shots: “Final decision on this question to be submitted for ratification to the Executive.”
De Valera’s response to receiving this warning – thinly masked as a conditional promise that his army partners would follow any new government of his for as long as he did what he was told – could only be imagined.
At least he would be free to choose his cabinet, which would be little more than a government-in-exile for as long as the current circumstances persisted. It was also window-dressing, a façade of constitutional respectability over the hard truth that power in the anti-Treaty camp rested in its military which, for all its talk of acting as the servant, had no intention of being anything other than the master.
Custodians of the Republic
A proclamation was next issued, blaming the current disorder on those public representatives who had, last December, voted for the Treaty and, in doing so, “violated their pledge and their oaths.” Under such circumstances, there was only one thing to be done:
WE, on behalf of the soldiers of the Republic in concert with such faithful members of DÁIL ÉIREANN, as are at liberty, acting in the spirit of our Oath as the final custodians of the Republic, have called upon the former President, Éamon de Valera, to resume the Presidency, and to form a Government which shall preserve inviolate the sacred trust of National Sovereignty and Independence.
The words ‘junta’ or ‘military dictatorship’ were never uttered. Quite likely, such terms never occurred to the men present. As far as they were concerned, they were merely custodians. Any power they had invested in themselves was for the purpose of righting a wrong, of forcing a wayward civil government back on the only true path it could take.
Yet a junta or a dictatorship was exactly what would have happened had Lynch had had his way.
Even before the outbreak of the civil war, when it seemed likely that the two opposing IRA factions would be reunite under a GHQ consisting men from both sides – an arrangement very similar to what had been proposed at the Executive meeting – Lynch had shown hints of a budding autocrat. According to Ruttledge, Lynch had:
…thought that whatever job he was offered on the composite staff, that if he got it, he would be able to control the army. He was very persistent in his belief.
As for the proposals put forward by Ennis and Russell, there is no evidence that they were ever read, let alone considered, by anyone in the Free State and certainly not by anyone of importance. That such a conciliatory attempt ever happened remains nothing more than a historical curiosity, a tease for the battered Anti-Treatyites that victory and salvation might just be around the corner.
For all the self-congratulation, at least two Executive members left the meeting distinctly unimpressed.
To O’Malley, all the talking had done was expose the lack of any coherent strategy besides waiting for success to fall into their laps. In practical terms, O’Malley knew, this would amount to being worn down and picked off piecemeal.
Not that he had much better to contribute. His suggestion for the Munster men to form motorised columns – much like he had done in the first week of the war – with which to attack enemy posts was clearly fantastical, given the paucity of even basic resources for the Anti-Treatyites. Resigned, O’Malley returned to a Dublin that was becoming increasingly fraught with enemy raids and searches.
Despite his disappointment, O’Malley remained as committed to the war as before. He and Lynch may have differed on many points, but not that key one. If nothing else, he had found the Executive get-together useful as a talking shop.
“You may remember that you promised to forward me particulars with regard to the manufacture of Smoke Grenades when I was at the Executive meeting,” O’Malley wrote to Deasy on the 26th October. O’Malley also wanted information from Deasy on incendiary grenades. “I think there should be a regular exchange of ideas on this subject,” he said.
Deasy, on the other hand, had already drawn the conclusion that the war was as good as lost. As he studied the performance of Munster units he oversaw as O/C of the First Southern Division, mulling over the mess they were in:
It appeared to me then that no real resistance was being offered to the Free State Army, apart from the Second Kerry and Fifth Cork Brigades and that we could never achieve anything we hoped for. Despite all this, Lynch was entirely unmoved in his steady determination to continue the fight.
Lynch, in Deasy’s opinion, put far too much stock in the reports he received, many of which told him only what he wanted to believe. If only Lynch had seen more of the areas he was reading about, Deasy thought, and met the officers on the ground, he might have developed a more realistic view of what was possible – and what was not.
But this still might not have been enough, Deasy concluded: “[Lynch] was however, so set on victory that I doubt even this would have changed his thinking.” Deasy could not help but admire him all the same. His commander was “to the very end an idealist with the highest principles as his guide and it was not in his nature to surrender or to compromise. He ultimately gave his life for those principles.”
Whatever his growing doubts about the war, Deasy had none in regards to Lynch’s leadership, being content at least to follow him as ardently as ever. Lynch had reciprocated such fealty when he made Deasy his Deputy Chief of Staff. It was a trust that was to be severely shaken.
After leaving the Executive meeting, Deasy took command of his new post, near Tincurry, Co. Tipperary. In addition to his duties as Deputy Chief of Staff, Deasy was also to take charge of a newly-formed division, the First Western, encompassing all of Munster, along with Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly and Laois. He was keen to make contact with the units of the last two counties as he knew very little about them.
With this in mind, he set off towards North Tipperary. The sunshine that day was unusually bright for November, not that he had time to appreciate it, being forced to avoid the main roads and even the secondary ones, going cross-country instead, such were the frequency of Free State patrols.
He made it to Boherlahan at dusk, just when two enemy lorries were passing through, forcing him to vault over a wall. Reaching Kilcommon, Deasy, who had been on the move for the past fortnight, covering in his estimate a hundred and forty miles on foot, finally had the chance to sleep soundly in the safe-house for the night.
He was also able to make contact with Paddy Lacken, the O/C of the North Tipperary Brigade. Lacken was the rare case of an officer for that area still at liberty, most of the others being in jail, leaving North Tipperary essentially dormant. The territory from Nenagh to the Offaly border was in Free State hands, as was East and Mid-Limerick.
It was a depressing, if not wholly unexpected, picture, one that did not improve when Lacken took Deasy in a pony trap to Toomevara for a rendezvous with some officers from Offaly and Laois who, after two days of waiting, never appeared.
Deasy could only conclude that they had been captured. He stoically accepted this likelihood before withdrawing from the plains of Toomevara for the relative safety of the Tipperary hills, developing a chest complaint on the way. Lacken took charge, leading Deasy to the home of a friend of his on the southern slopes of Slieve Felin, arriving there safely despite the thick fog which would at least deter hostile search parties.
Deasy was recovering at this house when Lacken arrived, during a break in the mist, with a copy of that day’s newspaper. To his horror, Deasy read how two Dáil deputies, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been ambushed in Dublin on the 7th December, with the former slain and the other wounded in a hail of bullets.
The following day, in retaliation, Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett were taken from their cells in Mountjoy Prison, where they had been held since the fall of the Four Courts. They were then executed by firing squad.
Deasy had known all the victims, being particularly close to Hales and Barrett. His already fragile health crumbling further, he slipped into a black despair, spending a sleepless night trying to figure out where everything had gone so horribly wrong.
The Republican Itch
The week crawled by with excruciating slowness. By the 14th December, Deasy, believing he was well enough to leave his sickbed, arranged with Lacken to depart the next morning. He was undressing for bed when he saw the first symptoms of scabies on his thighs. His condition had worsened by the morning, with his skin opening all over, blood and pus oozing out of the cracks.
The faithful Lacken helped him to a nearby doctor who bandaged the affected flesh, allowing him at least to travel, albeit gingerly, in a pony and trap. Crossing the Galtees, Deasy spent the next three weeks in bed, the scabies having spread throughout his whole body. His misery was alleviated somewhat by a female member of the family he was staying with. A trained nurse, she helped to apply the necessary bandages.
Visitors from the Tipperary IRA such as Con Moloney, Dan Breen and Bill Quirke kept him abreast of news, not that there was much to report. By early January, Deasy had recovered to again set forth, assisted this time by Quirke, to south Kilkenny.
Passing through the area, Deasy and Quirke could not help but notice how many of the Anti-Treatyites there had been captured, forcing the pair to rely less on local guides and more on their own wits. They neared the house at Cloggan where they were due to meet Seán Lehane, the commander of the Wexford IRA, and almost walked into a trap.
End of the Road
Lehane and his staff had been arrested in a raid on their Wexford headquarters a few days earlier. Found on them were dispatches about the upcoming get-together at Cloggan. National Army soldiers were lying in wait when one of the few IRA officers still at large, Ted Moore, was able to warn Deasy and Quirke in time.
As they doubled back, Moore mapped out a route for the two others to take. On a bright moonlight night, the duo said their goodbyes to Moore before a boatman ferried them over the Suir River. After spending a night with one of Quirke’s friends in the area, they continued on to the Nire Valley in west Waterford. Free State patrols were by now a common threat and, while Quirke was hopeful that Moore would continue to do his bit, Deasy inwardly wrote off Kilkenny and Waterford.
They had reached the last stage of the return journey to Tincurry. Acutely aware of the dangers of discovery by one of the enemy search parties, Deasy and Quirke agreed to separate. Deasy retreated to a friendly house on a hillside of the Galtees and, worn out from the week of punishing cross-country travel, slept soundly.
Later, he would at least have the consolation that Quirke had managed to escape.
He was awoken by the owner of the house, who informed him that the building was surrounded by Free Staters, some of whom were already inside. It took a few seconds for this to sink in and then Deasy was aware of a green-coated figure at the foot of his bed with a revolver.
Ernie O’Malley had faced a similar choice when cornered in Dublin two months ago. Unlike O’Malley, Deasy decided against a shootout that could only end one way.
More soldiers entered. After giving their captive time to dress, they searched the room. A resigned Deasy looked on as they found the loaded revolver under his pillow and the spare rounds of ammunition inside his trousers’ pocket. Not a word was said or needed to be, as all of them, Deasy included, knew what this meant. At least he was allowed a cup of tea and slice of bread before being marched off to Cahir.
The subsequent court-martial on the 25th January passed by in a blur. Deasy remained mute as the charge of possessing an unlicensed firearm was read out by the prosecuting officer, who finished by asking for the maximum penalty. The court agreed, and the sentence of death was pronounced, to be carried out the following morning.
 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. 279
Sitting by an open window on the morning of the 28th June 1922, the yellow lights of the Dublin tramway blurred by the drizzle, the journalist who would publish under the penname ‘Nichevo’ looked outside at the sound of marching boots:
Irish troops were on the move. Down the street they tramped in the misting rain, two long files of them on either side of the road, strapping men and whistling boys, equipped with all the cruel paraphernalia of modern war.
An hour had passed since the journalist had seen the last of the soldiers when the clock struck four and Dublin shook. From the distance could be heard the boom of artillery, punctuated by the snap of rifles and a harsh machine-gun rattle. “The whole city seemed to be alive with noise,” he wrote. “Shots echoed and re-echoed from the dripping walls…The battle for the Four Courts had begun.”
Venturing out in the afternoon, ‘Nichevo’ joined the thick throng of spectators lining the quays, across from the centre of attention. For all their bombast, the 18-pound shells from the National Army artillery had made little impact on the Four Courts, save for a few nicks and dents on the walls. Still, the sight alone was too much for some onlookers to bear in silence.
“I never thought it would come to this,” said one elderly man, leaning over to spit into the Liffey waters.
An End and the Start
The bombardment continued unrelentingly that evening, and all night, and then throughout the following day. News filtered to the crowd that several buildings in nearby Sackville (now O’Connell) Street had also been seized by the IRA (Irish Republican Army), with snipers taking up position on rooftops. “Now and then an armoured car would dash through the streets, but one saw very few signs of military activity, although one heard plenty of them.”
One thing ‘Nichevo’ could see was that the Four Courts, a newly blown hole in its flank, could not hold out for much longer. As the odds of the beleaguered defenders lessened, their compatriots elsewhere in the city centre conversely grew bolder, emerging out of cover to grab food, bedding, kitchen utensils and anything else of use for a drawn-out siege.
Things finally grew quiet that night, as if the artillery guns had tired themselves out. Then came the thundering denouement on the morning of the 30th:
An ear-splitting explosion shattered Dublin. Compared to this, the booming of the 18-pounder gun had been the merest murmur. Windows were smashed, houses shook from roof to cellar, the sky was darkened with a cloud of flying debris as the Four Courts disappeared into smoke.
A mine had detonated inside the Four Courts. The building complex was left in ruins, along with the resistance of its defenders. Grimy, red-eyed men and boys were led out, some shaken, others grimly contumacious, and escorted by green-coated soldiers towards the Jameson’s Distillery, where they would be held until transferred to Mountjoy Prison.
“It must be all over now,” wrote ‘Nichevo’. While Sackville Street remained a battleground, there was now a lull in the fighting, and a stillness had settled over the city. “Can it be nearing the end? Please God.”
But, as far as some were concerned, it was most certainly not over.
Despite his capture as part of the garrison, Ernie O’Malley was able to slip out with several others through a side-door in the Jameson Distillery. The escapees hurried over the Church Street Bridge and walked along the river until they were opposite the still-smouldering Four Courts, the site of their defiant stand mere hours before.
After pausing to gaze with morbid fascination at the gaping holes and crumbling upper storeys, the party hurried on. After spending the night in a friendly house, they travelling the next morning to Bray, first by tram and then on foot, hoping to link up with their compatriots. Instead they found only to find a smoking ruin in place of its barracks, its anti-Treaty garrison having set the building alight before withdrawing to Blessington, Co. Wicklow, where the rest of the IRA in South Dublin were mustering. O’Malley could not help but sourly wonder where they had been when the Four Courts needed them.
Regardless, he and his party commandeered a motor – carjacking being a common occurrence in Ireland by then – and drove to Blessington. Taking charge as the most senior officer present, O’Malley ordered for the village to be fortified as best it could, with barricades thrown up and mines scattered on the roads leading in. The inhabitants probably did not appreciate the intrusion, but no matter.
The next day, about seventy men from the Tipperary IRA arrived in a ragtag flotilla of char-a-bancs, Crossley tenders and motorcars. Combined, the Dubliners and the newcomers now numbered one hundred and thirty. Equipped with mines and explosives, as well as their firearms, they posed a formidable challenge. At last, O’Malley felt he could take the fight to the enemy.
By midnight, they were driving in a line towards the city centre, until the news that their colleagues had already decided to evacuate their positions in Sackville Street stopped them in their tracks. Crestfallen, the convoy returned to Blessington for the night.
Cutting a Swathe
At least the setback allowed O’Malley time to garner a better sense of the outside situation. Better informed than the Dubliners, the Tipperary men told him that Liam Lynch was currently in Limerick, having resumed the post of IRA Chief of Staff. But this update did not come with any direction on how to proceed, a common complaint among the Anti-Treatyites, many of whom were left floundering in the first few critical days of the war.
But not O’Malley. He had been urging for more aggressive moves from the start, frustrated by what he saw as Lynch’s passivity. Finally free to act, O’Malley decided to take his newfound war-band outside the city in search of easier targets. Once Munster was back under IRA control, he believed, they could then return to Dublin and settle the score.
Leaving some men to hold Blessington, O’Malley drove out with his mixed band of Tipperary émigrés and Dubliners. They approached Carlow, where an attack on the Free State-held town was considered, but that was put aside in favour of pressing on to Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in response to a call for aid.
They arrived at the town to the crack of gunfire as the Pro-Treatyites defended the castle from their IRA besiegers. O’Malley led his warband in blowing a hole in the outer yard gate of the castle with their explosives, followed by the similar demolition of the front entrance, at which point the occupants decided the time had come to wave the white flag. After extracting an oath from the prisoners to fight no more for the Free State, O’Malley allowed them to go free.
The next stop on this martial road trip was Ferns, which also fell without much further ado, followed by Borris in Co. Carlow and then Tullow. While contemplating the next moves to be launched against Carlow and Athy, O’Malley sent word to Limerick, asking Lynch for reinforcements to help attack the remaining Free State holdouts before the enemy could regroup.
“Tis in Vain…”
Had he talked with Séumas Robinson, O’Malley would have known how fruitless such a request would be. The Tipperary men who had arrived to help was only been a fraction of the numbers Robinson, as O/C of the Southern Tipperary Brigade, wanted to send. He had talked with Lynch on the train out of Dublin in the wake of the Four Courts attack, trying his best to persuade the Chief of Staff that the capital was the key to winning.
But Lynch would not hear of it. His orders had been for each of his officers to return to their localities and fight from there. It was in the countryside, Lynch believed, that the war would be decided. Although he did not yet know it, O’Malley was on his own.
Instead of reinforcements, Lynch sent a note on the 10th July, appointing O’Malley to Assistant Chief of Staff. His instructions were to proceed at once to Dublin and organise a staff for himself there, while simultaneously managing the IRA units in Leinster and Ulster. This was a tall order indeed, and O’Malley was momentarily flummoxed before pulling himself together.
“’Tis in vain for soldiers to complain,’ was what Wolfe Tone had written in his diary. It would be a much quoted mantra in the days to come.
That was the last he saw of his Tipperary contingent. Having little taste for the unfamiliarity of urban combat, they elected to return to their home county. O’Malley bore no ill will as he shook their hands and even advised them on the best routes to take. All he felt as he watched them drive off in a swirl of dust and a rumble of engines was a pang of loneliness.
Making a Start
Upon arriving back in his home city – by then under enemy occupation – O’Malley swiftly adjusted from warlord to underground operative. His immediate need was a base from which to build his command, and for this a studio room at the top of a Georgian house was found. Its owner was away on holiday, but when his wife warned of seeing suspicious men lurking outside, O’Malley took the hint to find another place.
He moved into number 36 on the prim and proper Ailesbury Road in leafy Donnybrook, from which to plan the next stage in the war. The home was owned by the sympathetic Ellen Humphreys, who had been hiding ‘on the run’ IRA leaders since the struggle against Britain.
“Surely the Staters would never think that we would have the hardihood to use such a well-known house again,” O’Malley reasoned and, for a time, he was correct.
In keeping with his penchant of hiding in plain sight, O’Malley began dressing as flamboyantly as he could, complete with brilliant ties and a hat festooned with peacock feathers, in order to deter anyone from thinking he was someone with anything to hide. As a finishing touch, he would carry a copy of that most mainstream of newspapers, TheIrish Times, during his daily jaunts as part of his cover as just another harmless citizen. He did, though, keep a revolver secreted on himself just in case, and practised his quick-draw each morning.
A quick learner in counter-surveillance, O’Malley studied the routes he would take for the day, taking care to differentiate. When the number of enemy patrols increased, including armoured cars and plainclothes teams, O’Malley switched from foot to use of a bicycle in the hope that its speed would grant him an increased chance at escape if recognised.
Despite the dangers, he preferred the personal touch of a face-to-face meeting with members of his staff or officers visiting from the country, believing that a written note would not have the same impact. Besides, he did not know many of the men he was supposed to be managing. He might have heard their names or met them briefly, but with no real notion as to their capabilities. Communications with areas outside of Dublin was haphazard, not to mention hazardous, with couriers having to risk hostile territory or friendly areas that had fallen into confusion thanks to the inertia of the months before.
With painful slowness and the steadfast assistance of his staff, O’Malley was able to piece together a picture of the situation he faced, until finally he had something he could report to Lynch about.
O’Malley did his Chief of Staff the courtesy of the unvarnished truth, in that the odds in Dublin were very much not in their favour. Writing to Lynch on the 28th July, he told of how in the city:
Enemy very active and in some cases whole coys [companies] have been picked up. This cannot be prevented, as the men must go to their daily work and there are not sufficient funds on hand to even maintain a strong column.
“We will carry on here as best we can,” O’Malley assured him, “but I am afraid we cannot bring the war home to them very effectively in Dublin.”
At least a flying column had been started, he said, with some operations already under its belt, although O’Malley admitted that he could provide no specifics as he had yet to receive any reports.
Constant enemy sweeps through the city and the arrest of some of his top officers had stifled the rest of the attempted resurgence, moving O’Malley to ask for permission to carry out something ambitious, such as seizing a block of buildings for a day or two before melting away. O’Malley was honest about the slim odds of a successful retreat but surely anything was better than waiting to be picked off?
Showing that he was unafraid to think big, even while in dire straits, O’Malley added that he was arranging for the capture of some leading bigwigs in the Free State. Holding them would present a difficulty, however, and he reached out to Lynch for help: “Could you arrange to look after them if we do not take them?”
If O’Malley was choleric, then Lynch was phlegmatic. The Chief of Staff’s main concern in his letter of reply, written from Co. Cork on the 2nd August, was the safety of his subordinate:
In view of the great activity of the enemy, you and other prominent officers here should take the greatest precautions. I would like to be able to rely on your safety to direct command. Keep people from seeing you – send deputies to interview those who must be seen, and direct things by dispatch.
Similarly, Lynch warned against grand gestures which could only result in the irreplaceable loss of what few men and scant equipment they could still muster. As for any prisoners taken, O’Malley would have to keep them where he was, for the situation in the country was too unsettled to be considered secure.
Instead, O’Malley was to focus on sabotaging wires and telegraph poles in order to better isolate enemy posts from each other. As Lynch explained: “I believe more effectual activities can be carried out on the lines of the old guerrilla tactics.”
The next day, a matter of pressing concern had occurred to the Chief of Staff:
Owing to the abuse of the Tricolour by Free Staters during the present hostilities, it has been decided that the Republican flag, when used by us, will bear the letters ‘I.R.’
There is no indication of any IRA unit effecting such a change. There were presumably more important things to worry about, such as survival.
Another problem worthy of Lynch’s micromanaging was the hostility of the press. “Enemy stuff is very vile and shows the steps they are driven to,” he complained. For a man usually impervious to the opinions of others, he could be quite thin-skinned.
‘We Are in Earnest’
His solution was for O’Malley to murder the editors of the Irish Times and the Irish Independent, the two largest newspapers in the country. O’Malley did not go so far as to refuse but, believing that there were worthier targets, he made no effort to implement these particular orders. He pressed for the Cabinet members of the Provisional Government to be targeted instead, but Lynch vetoed that approach on the grounds that the pro-Treaty military posed a more immediate danger.
Hoping to counterbalance enemy propaganda, O’Malley sent a letter to the Irish Independent, on the 19th August, defending the IRA from its media portrayal as made up of “blackguards, brigands, freebooters or ruffians”, and stressing the willingness of the Anti-Treatyites to fight without pay or material gain.
According to O’Malley, only the cause mattered to him and his compatriots: “The Republicans who are engaged in this war are fighting in a just and holy cause – namely, the defence of the Republic to which they have sworn to be faithful.”
Unfortunately, the pent-up frustrations spilled out onto the page of his righteously worded polemic, overwhelming any attempts to sound reasonable. “No vituperation is going to defeat this cause,” O’Malley said, adding petulantly: “The sooner you realise that the better.”
Lynch also pondered the ways in which the republican message could reach a wider audience. “If our activities and operations only could get fair publishing we would get ahead by leaps and bounds,” he mused on the 30th August. At least reports indicated that civilian attitudes were improving towards the IRA and the republican cause in general, which Lynch attributed to the determination on display: “They realise now we are in earnest and mean to fight.”
Still, public opinion “must be nursed a bit”, though Lynch fell short at explaining precisely how. The only suggestion he made on how to garner popular support was to send Count George Plunkett, the father of the 1916 martyr Joseph Plunkett, to Rome to protest to the Pope at the denunciations from the pulpits by the bishops and priests in Ireland.
Plunkett had previously been dispatched to the Vatican six years ago, just before the Easter Rising, to ensure that the then-Pope Benedict XV did not condemn the rebellion, so the Count made an inspired choice of papal emissary. The idea chimed in with Lynch’s top-down style of management, with the assumption that if one tier of a hostile hierarchy could be neutralised, then the lower ranks would obligingly fall into line.
The war in Dublin had improved little when O’Malley wrote back to his Chief of Staff on the 6th August. He tried to sound cautiously hopeful but came across more as fatalistic: “I have hopes, that is about all: one has to be patient here but certainly the circumstances are most peculiar and it is very difficult to counteract enemy espionage.”
His intelligence officers were hamstrung by being already known to the enemy – yet another unfortunate consequence of fighting former comrades – which made it hard to operate undetected. O’Malley cited one case of information failure when the Beggar’s Bush Barracks was undermanned with only forty Free Staters inside. The news was not forwarded to him until a day and a half later when the opportunity to strike had already passed.
Furthermore, “their propaganda is very insidious and ours is hopeless.”
His mood had not improved much by the time he wrote again: “There is not much to report on at present,” since he was still waiting for the report on the IRA attempt to isolate Dublin three nights ago on the 5th August. O’Malley would not receive this overdue report until the end of the month, by which time he would have been all too aware of the scale of the disaster and the crippling losses suffered by the Dublin IRA.
Fifty-eight men had been captured out of the hundred and forty-six involved, including their commanding officer. They had set out to demolish five canal or railway bridges connecting the city to the surrounding countryside, only to be intercepted and overwhelmed by the enemy. The armoured vehicles and massed machine-gun fire by the National Army were an advantage that the Anti-Treatyites could not hope to resist in a straight fight.
O’Malley’s hopes remained but not even he, it seemed, could take them seriously. In discussing the IRA in South County Dublin: “This area has not gone into working order as yet but I have ‘hopes’ – the usual ones.”
Lynch was of little help in advising on the situation, unsurprisingly so given how he lacked a realistic appraisal of his own. The surprise landings by the National Army in early August along the Cork and Kerry coastlines had thrown the IRA units stationed there into disarray, as Lynch admitted to O’Malley on the 18th August, rendering it impossible for them to focus on any one particular threat.
Yet he announced himself as “thoroughly satisfied with the situation now.” The guerrilla war he had always wanted was about to restart in Cork and Kerry, and Lynch had no doubt that “extensive operations will begin immediately” there. His main concern was with the “lying press propaganda” and the impact that may have on morale, as if the numerous setbacks were merely a case of adverse publicity.
On the 4th September, Lynch again cautioned O’Malley against anything too risky. There was to be no “big operations which only result in failure” – a cutting reference to the botched attempt to demolish the Dublin bridges a month ago.
Despite such failures and Lynch’s admonitions, O’Malley continued to chafe at his leash. Five days after receiving his Chief of Staff’s counsel against oversized operations, O’Malley complained to Liam Deasy, O/C of the First Southern Division, that “we are not going to win this war on purely guerrilla tactics as we did on the last war.”
Taking an enemy post, even a small one, would have a far greater impact than their current pin-prick approach, O’Malley believed.
Dublin remained key since there was not much point making the country ungovernable if the Pro-Treatyites continued to hold the capital. “If we could by means of better armament bring the war home to the Staters in the Capital,” he ruminated to Deasy, “it would have an immense effect on the people here and on the people in surrounding Counties.”
It was significant that O’Malley was telling this to someone other than Lynch. Also notable was how O’Malley was not expecting things to change anytime soon. The Chief of Staff was not one to change his mind once it was made up, and the rest of the Anti-Treatyites would just have to learn to live with that fact.
A numbness was seeping into O’Malley’s reports. In response to Lynch’s condolences on the death in action of his brother, he confessed that “to tell the truth I did not feel his loss much as I did not know him very well.” Still, his younger sibling had been “a good kid and died game.”
Speculations and Futility
Not everyone was as committed as Lynch or as resigned as O’Malley, with some on both sides wondering if there were not alternatives to the squalor and violence around them. Some of these imaginings centred on Michael Collins, whose death on the 22nd August 1922 was a turning point in more ways than one.
Lynch may have hailed it as the beginning of the end, the glimmer of victory at the end of a dark tunnel, but there were others who wistfully considered what might have been. Upon learning of the ambush planned on Collins at Béal na Bláth, Éamon de Valera was heard remarking that it would be a great pity if his adversary was killed as he would only be succeeded by inferior men.
Dan Breen went further. Though prepared to fiercely resist the Free State, along with the rest of the Tipperary IRA, Breen was open-minded enough to lend his services to the cause of peace if the opportunity arose, at least according to himself:
Michael Collins himself appeared to be on the point of attempting to seek a settlement shortly before his death. It has been said that he had announced (privately) his intention of getting in touch with de Valera in an effort to put an end to the conflict.
He did, undoubtedly, get in touch with Dan Breen, who received a message through an intermediary that Collins wanted to meet him. Breen discussed the message with General Liam Lynch and, with his knowledge and approval, set out for Cork to meet Collins.
Unfortunately, the projected meeting never took place…What would have been the outcome of the projected meeting between Breen and Collins is something on which we can only speculate, and such speculation would now be futile.
Overlooking Breen’s irritating tendency to refer to himself in the third person, there are certain hurdles to accepting this account at face value.
For one, while Lynch was certainly aware of the movement towards dialogue emanating from Cork, which he guessed to be a result of Collins’ presence there, he made his disinterest plain to O’Malley: “There can be no negotiations except on the basis of the recognition of the Republic” – which did not leave much room for discussion. The man who Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy believed could act as a moderating influence had turned out to be someone quite different.
Which leaves the last known interaction between Collins and Lynch as a brief correspondence in the press. It was an exchange that only publicly accentuated just how wide the gulf was between the two sides.
At least the People’s Rights Association of Cork had tried. Attempting to act as an honest broker, this group of concerned citizens forwarded to Collins on the 1st August a letter of reply to their own suggestion of peace it had received from Lynch.
“I wish to inform you that when the Provisional Government cease their attack on us, defensive actions on our part can cease,” Lynch had written. “If the Second Dáil, which is the Government of the Republic, or any other elected Assembly, carry on such Government, I see no difficulty as to the allegiance of the Army.”
In an accompanying letter to Lynch’s, the Association asked Collins if he was willing to arrange a ceasefire on the basis suggested by Lynch. The Commander-in-Chief of the National Army did not mince words in his published reply:
The Government has made it fully clear that its desire is to secure obedience to proper authority. When an expression of such obedience comes from irregular leaders I take it there will no longer be any necessity for armed conflict.
“The time for face-saving is passed,” Collins continued, with an air of finality:
Irregular leaders, political and military, got an opportunity of doing this over a period of seven or eight months. The issue now is very clear. The choice is definitely between the return of the British and the irregulars sending in their arms to the People’s Government, to be held in trust for the people.
‘Obedience to proper authority’, ‘sending in their arms’, ‘to be held in trust’ – less likely possibilities for the likes of Lynch and O’Malley could scarcely have been imagined.
“These scarcely need or deserve comment – we are sick of this sort of trash,” Lynch wrote in disgust at the latest ‘peace offers’ that amounted to nothing more than a demand by the enemy for an unconditional surrender.
A Reluctant Foe
Lynch was more concerned about the impact rumours of such talks might have on morale. There was a palpable sigh of exasperation in a letter of his to O’Malley on the 7th September:
So many private and unauthorised individuals are engaged in endeavouring to bring about peace in various terms, and are putting forward so many different proposals that it is necessary to inform all these individuals that the only body on our side competent to consider any proposals or terms submitted to us, or to put forward terms on which Peace may be concluded is the whole Army Executive.
Lynch was nothing if not protective of his prerogatives.
Collins appeared equally determined to resolve the war on his own terms. When Michael Brennan, who had led the Pro-Treatyites to victory in Limerick, talked with his Commander-in-Chief during the latter’s Munster tour, he came away with the distinct impression that Collins was not on a mission of peace.
“At the same time he was very attached to Cork men like Lynch and Deasy and didn’t want to fight them,” Brennan added.
Which may have been true. But, four months into the Civil War, it was clear that, however little Collins wanted to fight his former friends, he was prepared to do just that. With both him and Lynch convinced they were in the right and that the future of their country hung in the balance, neither leader was prepared to back down, ensuring that this was to be a struggle to the death – for the pair of them.
The Master or the Servant
The mentioning of the Second Dáil – the body elected in the 1921 election, before the Treaty was signed and the divisions began – and of elected assemblies in general, was a rare one by Lynch, who thought of himself as a soldier first and foremost. Politics and politicians were things best seen and not heard.
Even dabbling in such distractions could be a cause for suspicion. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch said of the left-leaning Liam Mellows.
But Lynch did not refer to the Dáil for its own sake but as part of a strategy to undermine the fledgling enemy state. The Publicity Department of the Provisional Government had come to that exact conclusion when, alongside Collins’ reply to People’s Rights Association of Cork, it delivered a scathing one of its own in regards to Lynch:
He demands in addition that the Dáil elected in June  should abrogate its sovereignty, ignore the mandate it received and base its policy entirely on the lines dictated by Mr Lynch and his associates in utter disregard of the will of the Irish people: that the army should be the master and not the servant of the people, and that the Government created by the people should be allowed to function only in so far as it obeys the orders of that army.
The desire to ignore the decision given by the Irish people in the June elections accounts for the stress laid upon a further meeting of the Second Dáil.
Which, based on Lynch’s own writings, was an accurate enough assessment of his intentions.
Pacts and Power
The Second Dáil had been the body of public representatives elected in the 1921 July general election. To head off the worsening Treaty divisions, a ‘Pact’ had been agreed by both sides, where the candidates from both factions would stand in the 1922 June election without reference to their Treaty positions.
This would allow, it was hoped, for the united front that had served everyone so well before to be preserved. That Collins had allowed other parties such as Labour and the Farmers Party, both of whom accepted the Treaty, to contest the election was seen by many in the anti-Treaty camp as a “flagrant violation” of the agreement, to quote Dan Breen, who himself had stood (unsuccessfully) as a candidate.
It became an article of faith among the Anti-Treatyites that because it was the other side who had broken the Pact, everything that resulted was accordingly their fault. O’Malley put it succinctly in another letter to a newspaper, this time the Freeman’s Journal:
The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation but the wiseacres again, agreed to the Pact when they are weak, broke it when they thought they were strong, and achieved only a catastrophe.
Lynch was of like mind on this. When O’Malley reported back on a meeting with Monsignor John O’Hagan, the Rector of the Irish College in Rome, on the priest’s suggestion of a ‘Coalition Government’ – i.e. one with both Anti and Pro-Treatyites serving together – he was sceptical, believing that military success was just around the corner and which would render the need for any such compromise moot.
But Lynch, more calculating, signalled his consent: “I would consider it alright, as this would bring us to the position which the P.G. dishonoured, i.e. the De Valera-Collins Pact.” Besides, he cannily noted, belying the usual assessment of him as a political naïf, such an arrangement would give them another angle from which to attack the hated Treaty. They only had to win the one time, Lynch explained, for if the “Treaty is once shelved it is shelved forever.”
Otherwise, Lynch spent very little time pondering the intricacies and possibilities of democracy. A question arose at the start of September when Con Moloney, the IRA Adjutant General, urged his Chief of Staff to do something about de Valera.
The former President of the Republic had been noticeably glum in the past month. He had even, according to Moloney, “contemplated taking public action which would ruin us.” Moloney admitted that the military situation had then been less than ideal but now that the wheel had turned, de Valera must be told, in no uncertain terms, to do nothing to embarrass them.
Also needing attention was the question of whether the anti-Treaty TDs elected in the 1922 election should attend the Third Dáil when it finally opened. If not, should their pro-Treaty counterparts be prevented from doing so as well? Not that it mattered too much, in Moloney’s view, since the Third Dáil in itself was an irrelevance.
“Since the ‘Panel Agreement’ was broken, the second Dáil is the only Government of the Republic,” Moloney said – a viewpoint which conveniently meant that there was no government at all, and certainly not one the IRA need kowtow to.
Lynch was to display no strong feelings either way. For all his talk about the Second Dáil as the Government of the Republic or whatnot, he could “see no useful purpose being served at the moment by trying to get the 2nd Dáil together,” as he told O’Malley.
Neither did Lynch see much use in politicians of any ilk, even ones on the same side. “I am not over anxious as to co-operation of Republican Party. Of course they are doing their best,” Lynch added with a touch of condescension. He did not believe that the IRA and their allied politicians had enough in common to be considered republican equals: “The Army has its mind made up to total separation from England; I do not think that can be said of Party.”
Not that Lynch was against the idea of cooperation per se. While he warned O’Malley against “political people” having any control over military propaganda, the IRA could still “accept all the assistance from them which they are prepared to give”, in what Lynch probably considered a generous concession on his part.
Lynch planned to hold a meeting of the IRA Executive as soon as he reached the town of Tipperary. During this, he hoped to form an Army Council, consisting of five or six nominees, which would focus on the military and civil concerns that arose. One such member, Lynch suggested, could be “responsible for availing of the many services which Republican Party can render us.”
Who would be serving who in such an arrangement was left in no doubt. In the meantime, Lynch offered his opinion – not his order, he stressed – that anti-Treaty TDs should not attend the Dáil. It was a weak response, verging on indifferent, that showed just how little importance he placed on the matter.
A Life In Hiding
Confined to his administrative duties in 36 Ailesbury Road, O’Malley did his best to make do. At least he had regular visitors in the form of Seán Dowling, the Director of Operations, and his young assistant, Todd Andrews, both of whom would help with the dispatches for the day.
In the evenings they would escape the paperwork for half an hour of tennis. Dowling had initially objected on the grounds of it being too risky, exposed as they would be in the back garden but, when O’Malley insisted, even the cautious Dowling began to enjoy himself as they played singles or doubles with the addition of Sheila Humphreys, the 23-year old daughter of the family. O’Malley kept a ball in his pocket in case enemy soldiers were sighted, in which case he would escape out of sight by hitting the ball into a neighbouring garden and then climbing over the fence to ‘retrieve’ it until the danger had passed.
Conversation was another pastime with his guests, whether gossiping about the people involved on either side, many of whom were personal acquaintances of his, or discussions on more cerebral topics such as the philosophy of Stoicism. It was a school of thought that had served him well during the War of Independence. As O’Malley recounted those days, Andrews “seemed to detect a note of pride in his accounts of his ability to endure torture and pain. It seemed as if he actually enjoyed his experiences in such situations.”
When Andrews called in one day, he found the normally unflappable O’Malley almost out of his mind with cabin fever. Desperate to get out of the house, he invited Andrews to join him on a trip for a haircut. Not wanting to be seen as cowardly, Andrews reluctantly agreed.
The pair caught a tram to Westmoreland Street, where there was the best barber in town, at least in O’Malley’s opinion. “While we waited our turn my nerves were stretched to breaking point,” remembered Andrews. To his horror, O’Malley was in no hurry to return to his fishbowl life in Ailesbury Road, indulging in not only a haircut but a singe and a shampoo. Mercifully for Andrews, he did go as far as a face massage but, on the way out, O’Malley paused to purchase two large cigars, one of which he handed to his friend.
“It would be difficult to describe a better method of calling attention to ourselves than by smoking large cigars on a sidewalk in the heart of the city,” Andrews bemoaned. That O’Malley was wearing one of his ostentatious hats – a “large off-white woollen cap” – did nothing to soothe his companion. By the time Andrews got away and returned home, he was in a state akin to shock.
Thinking back on his time with O’Malley, he considered the other man to be a victim of circumstances, condemned as he was to a tedious desk job:
…dispensing circulars to what at that time were mainly non-existent units of the IRA and when they existed, rarely receiving a reply. He would have achieved true fulfilment in leading a flying column or commando unit.
O’Malley would not have disagreed. He was uncomfortably aware of the incongruity of his situation, partaking in tennis and tea in suburbia, enjoying regular meals, while out in the hills and streets, his brothers-in-arms were struggling merely to survive. It was an all-too-common disparity, O’Malley knew, for many of his fellow officers were content to sit back as bureaucrats when they should have been out in the field, leading by example.
O’Malley would eventually get his chance to do just.
It was still dark at half seven in the morning of the 4th November when O’Malley was awoken by a knock on his bedroom door by Sheila to let him know that their house was surrounded.
After assuring her that he was alright, O’Malley remained in his room, placing his revolver on his dressing-table where he had also left a safety razor and a hand-grenade. He dressed in the darkness as quickly he could, pulling his trousers and coat over his pyjamas. Struggling to keep his breathing steady, he heard voices, then footsteps moving upstairs and closer.
There was the distant tapping of rifle-ends against the walls as the enemy searched for concealed rooms, like the one at the end of the corridor where O’Malley was waiting. The door to his bedroom had been changed to a wooden clothespress, which could be swung open by means of a spring connected to a wire to pull. This cunning device had been constructed during the War of Independence by a man who – as O’Malley was uncomfortably aware of – had joined the pro-Treaty side.
A rifle-butt knocked on the other side of the dummy clothespress, emitting a hollow sound that distinctly told of a room beyond. More rifles were struck against the wood, splintering it bit by bit. O’Mally was keenly tempted to fire his revolver through the door before dashing out in a blaze of glory but the fear of hitting any of the Humphrey family stayed his hand.
It was not until the partition finally swung open with a heavy crash that O’Malley gave in, firing twice at the first intruder and being rewarded with a cry of pain. Free Staters scrambled to escape as he emerged from his bolthole, shooting again, this time at a motion behind another door in the corridor, hitting Áine O’Rahilly, the sister of Ellen Humphreys, who was staying with them, in the chin.
Ellen appeared to help her sibling back into her room, gallantly assuring O’Malley not to worry. Thoroughly shaken, O’Malley forced himself to concentrate on the situation at hand. The sound of breaking windows told of how the enemy outside were firing on the house from all directions.
With the grenade in hand, O’Malley stepped downstairs to where he could hear the babble of voices, pulled the pin out and lobbed it at the Free Staters crowding the hall. The men stampeded for the door until the hall was empty save for the unexploded grenade, its cap belatedly revealed as defective, lying in the centre of the floor.
Making the decision to take the fight outdoors to spare his hosts any further danger, O’Malley left through the back and ran around the house, revolver in hand, opening fire at the first green coats he saw. A bullet struck him in the back, and then another to the shoulder, felling him to the previously manicured, now-torn lawn.
He managed to squeeze off more shots but his benumbed hand was only slowly responding to his mental commands. Again, he was hit from behind, but he struggled to his knees, and then on trembling legs. A fourth bullet found him, once more in the back, and he crumbled against the wall of the house.
O’Malley emerged from a red haze to find himself again inside the house, Ellen having managed to drag him there. Lying on his brutalised back, lacking the strength to turn over, he watched dimly as a circle of uniforms surrounded him.
AILESBURY ROAD FIGHT read the Irish Times headline, two days later on the 6th November:
One soldier of the national Army was killed, a prominent leader of the Republicans was seriously wounded when national troops sent to search 36 Ailesbury road.
“In many respects the affair was worthy of the cinema,” noted the article. The Republican leader in question had been driven away under heavy escort in a military ambulance, his condition being described as critical. The write-up he received in the newspaper, whose editor he had held off from assassinating, might at least have given him some satisfaction:
Ernest O’Malley was in charge of the Four Courts during the bombardment, and arranged its surrender. He afterwards escaped while in custody in Jameson’s distillery. He has displayed much activity throughout the country.
Despite the severity of his wounds, O’Malley would live, albeit as a prisoner for the duration of the war. His aforementioned activity had come to an end. Lynch took the loss of his right-hand man phlegmatically. As he promoted Moloney to fill O’Malley’s place in the IRA hierarchy, Lynch said that while the arrest was a serious loss, “he could have been taken at a worse time; it has led to no disorganisation.”
Furthermore, the “splendid fight” of O’Malley’s would serve as a stirring example to the others. If nothing else, Lynch could be relied upon to see any glass as half-full.
 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.75