The Worst of a Good Deal: The Irish Pact Election of June 1922 (Part II)

A continuation of: The Best of A Bad Job: The Irish Pact Election of June 1922 (Part I)

‘If All the People of Ireland But Ten Men…’

The fundamental thing to remember about the General Election of June 1922 is that it was a face-saving fraud and always intended to be, a parliamentary Potemkin Village rather than an honest attempt to uncover the public desire. After all, that was not really in doubt: people wanted the Anglo-Irish Treaty, or rather the peace it represented for Ireland after two and a half years of shootouts and slayings in its fields and streets as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) pitted itself against the might of the British Empire. It was the policy of the Fenians writ large, the reclamation of Irish nationhood by strength of arms and the backing of a loyal populace.

IRA men

And yet, by the start of 1922, if the IRA still had the weapons, then the support was less certain. With hindsight, “it may be that we were expecting too much from people who had suffered so greatly and who now felt that peace, even without full freedom, was what they really wanted,” wrote Liam Deasy in his memoirs. By then, Deasy was a sadder but wiser man, having lived through the collapse of the Republican cause in the Civil War and his own narrow escape from a firing-squad. At the time, however, Deasy was prepared to fight to the death for his ideals, as were the rest of the IRA bloc hostile to the Treaty, and popular will be damned.

Liam Deasy

“This should not be wondered at,” Deasy explained to his readers. “We were never unduly influenced by election results.”[1]

It was about sticking to one’s principles. “If all the people of Ireland but ten men voted that the nation go over to the Islamic faith, their decision would not bind the ten men,” wrote Aodh de Blácam in Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, the newsletter for the anti-Treaty viewpoint, in May 1922. “If all Ireland but ten men voted that the Archbishop of Canterbury be head of Irish Christians, those ten men would yet owe that dignitary no allegiance.”[2]

Aodh de Blácam

Maybe not – but would these hypothetical ten men allow the rest of the nation to bind itself? Putting principles first could become elevating them above all else, even if it meant riding roughshod over others. While Deasy might not have considered his comrades to be overly susceptible to democracy, with de Blácam poo-pooing the very concept of majority rule, the power of a public vote was still recognised, enough for the need to thwart it.

“No election on the issue at present before the country to be held while the threat of war with England exists,” insisted Poblacht Na h-Eireann in April 1922.[3]

‘Without Prejudice to their Present Respective Positions’

Arthur Griffith

Unwritten was the reason why: because the Anti-Treatyites would lose, which would force the Treaty sticking point to breaking point and open warfare. Robert Brennan had been increasingly and uncomfortably aware of this nightmarish scenario ever since reading in a newspaper about the signing of the Treaty while in Berlin as an Irish envoy. He instantly returned to Dublin and chanced upon a jolly Arthur Griffith in the Mansion House. If Griffith assumed Brennan would be supportive of his decision to put his name to the Treaty, then Brennan wiped the smile off his face by telling him that he had made a terrible mistake. Even if the alternative was further war, said Brennan, then at least the revolutionary movement would have faced it as one body.

“The person who talks like that is a fool,” Griffith snapped. Nonetheless, the two men remained on friendly terms, an amiability not commonly shared in Ireland as divisions widened into an outright schism.[4]

While he never wavered in his opposition to anything short of an Irish Republic, Brennan grew impatient with his military allies, such as Liam Mellows and Ernie O’Malley, whom he viewed as naively unprepared, to the point of delusional, for conflict, even after their seizure of the Four Courts in April 1922 brought that grim possibility all the closer. And then Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, each representing their own faction, were able to hammer out an electoral rapprochement on the 20th May, signing what would become known as the Pact.

Robert Brennan

This came not a moment too soon for Brennan, a solution in the eleventh hour that promised both peace and the protection of the anti-Treaty presence in the Dáil, for candidates from the two sides were not to run against each other. Instead, they would be standing on the same platform, not as Anti-Treatyites, not as Pro-Treatyites, but as Sinn Féiners first and foremost, just like before.[5]

The situation could allow for no other option, as the opening clause in the agreement proclaimed:

The national position requires the entrusting of the Government of the country into the joint hands of those who had been the strength of the national situation during the last few years, without prejudice to their present respective positions.[6]

“When the Pact was unanimously adopted by the Dáil, the feeling of relief was profound because the shadow of civil war had been lifted,” was how Brennan described the mood. Which made the news that some were seeking to throw the toys out of the pram all the more shocking.

A young man of Brennan’s acquaintance – given the pseudonym of ‘Dan Smith’ in his reminiscences:

…came into my office [on O’Connell Street] with a sensational report. He had been present at a secret meeting of an Independent group that morning. Darrell Figgis, who was not a member of the group, had attended and made a speech urging the group to put forward candidates in opposition to the Sinn Féin panel of candidates at the election.

It was no secret that Figgis, a long-time Sinn Féin activist whose curriculum vitae included organising the Howth Gun-Running in 1914, had come down firmly on the side of the Treaty. Less clear was why he wanted to undermine the Pact but, whatever the motive, to Brennan, “this was treachery, because Figgis, as a member of the Sinn Féin Executive, was bound in honour to uphold the Pact.”

Darrell Figgis, hard at work

As proof of these machinations, ‘Smith’ gave Brennan a verbatim report of this meeting. Brennan wasted no time in getting to Suffolk Street, where he met with de Valera in the latter’s office, along with Erskine Childers and Austin Stack. The decision was made to publish the report in a special STOP PRESS edition of Poblacht Na h-Eireann, on the 30th May 1922, under the dramatic headline TREACHERY TO THE PACT – THE PLOTTERS.[7]

Backroom Alliances

The ‘treachery’ in question had taken place at the close of a special session of the National Executive of the Irish Farmers Union (IFU) at 37 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, on the 25th May. Figgis’ choice of venue was unusual in that he was in no way connected to anything agricultural. He also admitted, after being introduced to the room, that his position was a delicate one since he was a member of the Sinn Féin Standing Committee, which had just signed off on the Pact five days ago. Anything Figgis did was to be understood as purely personal and in no way on behalf of anyone or anything else.

d9a9584c48c66a9d99a2e03ec974accf-easter-rising-the-generalWith that said, his view was that the Treaty, warts and all, represented the best chance the country had, particularly at developing industry and the economy. With that in mind, those with expertise at turning a profit should have an opportunity to contribute to the forthcoming government.

After all:

Ireland had a greater proportion of its population out of work than was the case in any other country. The figures were, roughly, 150,000 unemployed – who represented a population of 500,000 – which meant that one-eighth of their people were out of work and suffering from hunger. These problems should be solved by the business people of the country, and these people should get into Parliament.

Darrell Figgis

Which was not going to happen with any sort of Pact Election, rigged – ‘crooked’ to use Figgis’ word – as it was in favour of a forced equality between pro and anti-Treaty adherents that would do no more for national stability than before. Instead, the three groups currently excluded, representing Irish commercial, industrial and farming interests, should stand together on a common platform. The Dáil already had a pro-Treaty majority, though a slight one, and if reinforced by Independent delegates of the same opinion, it would strengthen the likelihood of the Treaty being implemented.

The boldness of this proposal made some attendees hesitant. A Mr Beamish from Cork expressed his view that, if Republican voters were to stick to Republican candidates, and Pro-Treatyites to likewise back their own, then there was not much room left for any third options. That was, after all, how the Pact had been designed to operate.

Not so, replied Figgis, as he thought it likely that seventy percent of the electorate would choose a non-Sinn Féin candidate before a Sinn Féin, or ‘Panel’, one. The strategy would only work if, say, farmers’ candidates refrained from standing in rural areas, and instead targeted Republican-held spots. In the Kildare-Wicklow area, for example, there were four anti-Treaty seats that were for the taking if planned accordingly. In places where neither the agricultural nor business communities were strong, by pooling their votes they could cut the ground from underneath the Anti-Treatyites.

Sir John Keaene

“The farmers want a farmers’ party,” said the IFU Chairman, Sir John Keane, as he seconded this strategy, “but that would not prevent us from working together.”

That appeared to be the consensus in the room. County Clare was raised as another case in point: its business element was small but what there was could lend its support to an agrarian nominee in the absence of an industrial one and push the vote accordingly in their mutual favour. In other counties, the reverse could be applied. Having been frozen out of the election before, there was now a chance for the farmers and businessmen to push their way in from the cold.

The country was tired of elections, Figgis remarked as the meeting drew to a close, the implication being that now was the time to get down to work.[8]

A Mystery Man

David Lloyd George

Perhaps it was understandable that Brennan and other Republicans would react so strongly to this democratic putsch. Figgis and his IFU audience had talked not just of putting forward their own candidates, alongside the Panel-approved ‘official’ ones, but in targeting anti-Treaty-held seats specifically. A more blatant violation of the neutrality the Pact was intended to uphold could scarcely be imagined, to the point that David Lloyd George wondered to his Privy Council if this precipitated a split between Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, given the latter’s closeness with Figgis.[9]

The British Prime Minister was not alone in speculating. To Joseph Connolly, there was no way Figgis would have done what he did “without the full consent and approval of Griffith.”  Connolly was in New York at this time, representing the Irish Republic as Consul General, and so lacked a front-row seat to the drama at home, but he knew Figgis enough to dislike him, regarding the other man as “something of an interloper, a careerist or an opportunist.”

This was apparently a widely shared opinion in the Irish revolutionary movement, with Griffith a notable exception, and his friendship with Figgis was one Connolly struggled to understand. The implication Figgis’ behaviour had for Griffith’s own conduct was disturbing to Connolly: “It is not to me a pleasant recollection of Griffith, but what seems to be the clear facts of that move must be recorded.”[10]

Joseph Connolly

Not that much was clear about the whole affair, with undisputed facts hard to come by. Poblacht Na h-Eireann chose to treat Figgis as a rogue element, albeit one whose misdemeanour threatened a wider indictment if unchecked. As a Sinn Féin official, Figgis’ partisan actions had thrown the credibility of his fellow Pro-Treatyites into jeopardy. While his previous record of service to Ireland was well-known and respected, “Mr Figgis should be promptly disowned by his party.”[11]

The man in question was quick to defend himself via a letter to the press, published on the 31st May, the day after Poblacht’s exposé. None of the Pact’s seven clauses forbade what he had said or done, Figgis wrote; indeed, Clause Four specifically stated that “every and any interest is free to contest the election with the Sinn Fein panel.” The only limitation was on pro and anti-Treaty candidates on the aforementioned Panel running against each other. Otherwise, all was as it should be. The liberties of the Irish people and their right to a free election, had been safeguarded, despite the efforts of some in the spirit of the old Irish Parliamentary Party who used to argue that any opposition to it was de facto treason against the national interest.

In case readers missed the historic allusion:

The issue is the same to-day, not because of the Pact, but because of the attempt to misuse the Pact. Let us remember that we have had no elections since 1918. Some of the present members of the Dail have never been voted upon by the people. The rest have not been voted upon since December, 1918. We are, therefore, almost as far from a genuine election as the Irish Party was.

All of which was anathema to what Sinn Féin stood for, in Figgis’ view. Sinn Féin, a name Figgis had worn as far back as when it was dangerous to do so, was “not a close political corporation. It is itself a composition of many different parties,” out of which the electorate would select whoever they deemed best:

That is the simple issue before us. The people of Ireland are free and responsible, and no one can restrict that freedom or diminish that responsibility.

Not even, Figgis added pointedly, the “artificial restriction of candidates.”[12]

A Tipperary Case Study

Dan Breen

Knowingly or not, acting alone or in concert, Figgis had thrust an awkward question into the spotlight: what was the general election for? For democracy and liberty, Figgis had argued, but others looked to different priorities. Given the current circumstances, unity and good government was paramount, Commandant-General Dan Breen told a convention of the Irish Farmers Party in Tipperary Courthouse, on the 5th June 1922. To this effect, he asked them to withdrew their candidates, giving the outgoing Dáil representatives for North, Mid and South Tipperary a clear run and a chance to work together. The coming parliament would only last a short while anyway, before another election – and then the farmers of Tipperary could send their own to the Dáil.

That was good enough for the Farmers Party, and their two aspirants, Hassett and James Duggan, were stood down. Not so pliable was Daniel Morrissey, who held his ground on behalf of Labour, despite Breen’s appeal in a one-on-one talk to “close the ranks”, to which Morrissey had replied, as he explained to the Nenagh Guardian:

It is not Labour’s fault that the ranks were divided any more than it was Comdt.-Gen. Breen’s; neither am I sure with it being either of their faults if they are not now closed…There are many starving labourers in the country as well as others who may be excused if they fail to see that the “country was above all interests” to the members of the late Dáil.

Breen had a response of his own, written in a tone more of sorrow than anger for the pages of the same newspaper:

I interviewed a Mr Morrissey of Nenagh, but the arguments which moved the farmers of Tipperary failed to move him.

He was a worker, Breen declared, and would not have asked fellow workers to step aside in the election if he thought their interests would be at risk. As it was:

Our country is above all interests. On the declaration of the poll, I hope to see Tipperary stand on the National record where it has stood for the past four years.

It was a matter of politics, not personalities, and nowhere did either Breen or Morrissey behave with anything less than civility, in print or in person. Indeed, Morrissey spoke of being treated with “nothing but the greatest courtesy from Comdt.-Gen. Breen.” A letter from a Seamus Nolan, also published in the Nenagh Guardian, took on a harsher tone, however:

It is lamentable that Mr Morrissey was not more vocal in support of his countrymen when the fight [against Britain] was on: and that he now holds up for his own glorification the sacrifices made by genuine Labour men throughout the country. But it is doubtful if Mr Morrissey can claim to be the spokesman of Labour in Tipperary, having regard to certain incidents which occurred at the meeting which selected him.[13]

Daniel Morrissey

What occurrences were these, Nolan did not elaborate. Two years later, Breen was similarly snide in his autobiography, refusing to refer to Morrissey by name, only as “the Labour candidate” who “cared nothing about the idea of presenting a united front to the enemy. He was ambitious for power and insisted upon going forward.” This depiction jars sharply with the public exchange between the pair at the time, but then, Breen was writing in the aftermath of defeat, amidst the ashes of the Republic, a bitter and sullen man.[14]

The Surrender Business

Elsewhere in Ireland, other candidates not already on the Panel were made to feel like the poor relations at the feast. At Ennis Courthouse, Co. Clare, the three contenders selected as Labour, Farmers and Independent respectively withdrew within minutes of the deadline to do so, leaving the constituency wide open for the four Panel candidates, pro and anti-Treaty alike. With no other contenders, the seats would go to them by default.

Éamon de Valera

The cheers from the onlookers showed the popularity of this decision, and further applause greeted Éamon de Valera when he appeared on the Courthouse steps, the same ones he had stood on when elected in Clare for the very first time, back in 1917 – a parallel the Chief was not slow to draw. That election then had been a triumph for the dead, de Valera told his audience, just like he believed the present one was. After all, were they not here today because of the ideals for which others died?[15]

William O’Brien

Such lofty talk belied the darker goings-on beneath the surface of consensus. Patrick Hogan, the erstwhile Labour selection in Clare, had “got cold feet when it came to the point because of local pressure there from the people who wanted no election so that their nominees would be returned unopposed,” according to William O’Brien, a leading trade unionist in Dublin. O’Brien sent his Labour comrade letters and telegrams, urging him to be firm, along with an encouraging telephone call, but the strain proved too much for Hogan. Nor was Hogan’s case unique, for O’Brien, as did the other Labour aspirants, “got anonymous letters and protests continually” over their decision to stand.[16]

At least neither Hogan nor O’Brien suffered actual violence. Others were not so spared. That Denis J. Gorey, the Farmers Party selection for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency, took a double-barrelled shotgun to bed on the 4th June indicates something was already in the air when the sound of footsteps roused him to his feet in the middle of the night. Despite the insistence of the four uninvited callers at his front-door that they just wanted a chat, Gorey refused to come out.

When one reached inside his jacket, so Gorey told the Kilkenny People:

He was too slow, and I “got the drop” on him with my empty gun. I ordered them to stand back. They did. I asked were they going to speak or not, and the leader said, shaking his head, “Oh, if that’s the way you are going to get on” and looking disgusted at my manner the four turned about and walked away back through the yard without saying a word, evidently shocked at my idea of hospitality.

Gorey knew he did not have long to prepare before the next ‘social call’. Bereft of ammunition, he settled on the upstairs corridor as the best redoubt for a last stand with his sons, using knives and whatever else at hand if it came to it. Mrs Gorey was dispatched to summon help, for which her family was still waiting when the ‘visitors’ reappeared first.

IRA men

They were at least cordial enough to open with a call for the Gorey household to submit. However:

I wasn’t in the surrender business, and said so. I got three minutes or take the consequences. I chose the consequences, so the fight started, revolvers first. I advised going on, and the rifles began. One bullet about 18 inches over my head came through the window shutter, plaster, and out through the other window, covering me with broken glass and plaster. I again advised going on. A few more revolver shots and rifle fire at the back, and then silence. I understood I used some “language” by way of encouragement to help my visitors to fight. If so I apologise; I don’t like “language.”

James Lennon

Without anything stronger than bad words to throw back, the defenders of the Gorey Alamo had no choice but to endure the twenty minutes of fusillades before Mrs Gorey returned up the drive with an armed posse of their neighbours. The assailants pulled back, ending the siege that had, thankfully, not seen any casualties save the damage to the house. The four Panel candidates for the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency instantly decried the affair, with the two pro-Treaty men, W.T. Cosgrave and Gearóid O’Sullivan, presenting a united front of condemnation with the Anti-Treatyite pair, James Lennon and Eamonn Aylward.

Nowhere were the political leanings of the raiders explicitly stated in the Kilkenny People, but a defiant (and waspish) Gorey left little doubt as to his suspicions:

I am certainly for the Treaty, but if my country needs a fighter, old as I am, I guarantee that I will put in more real fighting in seven days than one of the anti-Treaty men could put in seven lifetimes.[17]

Other non-Panel nominees were not so much encouraged to step back as forced down. On the night of the 3rd June, Godrey J. Greene also found his house surrounded. Unlike Gorey, he was able to shoot back; unlike Gorey, he submitted after a wounded arm made further resistance unfeasible and withdrew from the electoral contest in Waterford-East Tipperary. Elsewhere, nomination papers for Bernard Egan failed to reach Westport, Co. Mayo, in time for him to run on behalf of the Farmers Party in North-West Mayo when the courier was waylaid.

Those responsible were persistent: the night before, so it was reported, “two armed men called on Mr. Egan and unavailingly tried to persuade him to withdraw his candidature.”[18]

Colt Single Action Revolver .45 (circa 1920)

‘The Rule of .45’

But the worst treated was Darrell Figgis, when he suffered an invasion of his flat in Kildare Street, Dublin, just before midnight on the 12th June. The three youths who barged in when Mrs Figgis answered the door told her husband they were acting under instruction; that said, two held him down on a chair while the third cut off a chunk of his beard. They would have moved on to his hair if Figgis had not persuaded the trio that they had fulfilled their orders enough.[19]

Robert Briscoe

Any doubts as to culpability was answered in the publication of Robert Briscoe’s recollections in 1958, in which the author treated his part in the assault as if it had been no more than a spirited lark. Figgis had been annoying him and his fellow Anti-Treatyites for quite some time, “strolling dapperly down O’Connell Street in smartly cut clothes, with his red hair gleaming like newly polished boots and a fine, red, square-cut beard that was his special pride.” Between his peacocking and high-profile partisanship, “it seemed proper to close his mouth.”[20]

But his was one mouth not to be closed. Speaking to the press after his ordeal, Figgis said:

…that he had nothing to say against the men in question…the offence lay not with these boys, but with the men who had charged them, and, finally, with the leaders of those who opposed the Treaty, unless they specifically repudiated this act and took measures to see that proper discipline was observed, and that other acts of a like sort did not occur in the future.[21]

Which was unlikely.

“We have the rule of .45,” Briscoe had overheard Seán Etchingham saying sardonically in response to someone questioning the procedures of the IRA Convention they were attending. Held at the Mansion House in March 1922, the event presented a study in contrasts: grim young warriors standing in the genteel reception room, beneath the crystal chandelier and surrounded by oil portraits, their shabby tweed coats militarised by Sam Browne belts and holsters containing .45 calibre service automatics. Dick Barrett was to brandish such a weapon at the manager of a bank Briscoe proceeded to use to launder bank notes robbed earlier as part of the ‘levy’ imposed by the anti-Treaty IRA Executive, by then headquartered in the Four Courts, which had likewise been occupied by force.[22]

Attendees as the IRA Convention of March 1922

Figgis, Gorey and Greene were but the latest victims of this ‘Might Makes Right’ mentality that showed no signs of abating. After all, the shadow of the gunman was what enabled the Anti-Treatyites to bring about the Pact Election and its shielding of a vote that otherwise would have cost them. “They feared that the Irish people would be stampeded by England’s threat of war into approving [the Treaty] against their real desires,” Briscoe explained.[23]

How fortunate, then, that the masses of Ireland had leaders who knew their wants better than they did.

A Bombshell (?) in Cork

Richard Mulcahy

Intimidatory incidents like Briscoe’s and Gorey’s aside, the anti-Treaty IRA held their hand. If the likes of Briscoe and his superiors truly wanted to sweep the board clean, then they had the guns and numbers to do so. That the general election was proceeding at all made Richard Mulcahy confident enough to drop by the O’Kelly residence in St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, with his wife Mimi in an open-topped car, and invite the other couple to accompany them in enjoying the afternoon sun. Seán T. O’Kelly was reluctant, until Mulcahy pointed out that for two brothers-in-law, each on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, to be seen together would send out a signal for how well the accord they had helped to broker was working.

Besides, he added, there was some business he wanted to go over. O’Kelly gave in and the four got on board, where:

Mulcahy then told me, in the presence of our wives, that Mick Collins had given much thought to the setting up of a coalition government. That he meant that it should consist of persons who would work harmoniously together.

Seán T. O’Kelly

For the Minister of Finance, Collins wanted O’Kelly and had tasked Mulcahy with relaying the offer. Far from flattered, O’Kelly was instead taken aback at Collins’ presumption that he would be the one unilaterally making all the selections. When he pointed out that the Republican Party Executive would surely expect a say, Mulcahy replied that Collins was insistent on the matter. But O’Kelly could be equally hard-nosed and the ride ended with the foursome having a distinctly non-political tea in the Malahide Hotel, after which they drove back.

That was the first and the last I heard of Michael Collins’ proposition that I should be Minister for Finance in the coalition government, which it was agreed under the Dáil Pact should have been set up if the Pact had been permitted to operate.[24]

O’Kelly seems to have kept this exchange to himself and preparations for the general election went ahead. Figgis’ attempt at gate-crashing had unsettled the Anti-Treatyites, but they nonetheless went through the motions of democracy, working together with the Pro-Treatyites in the printing of posters and other promotional material that listed the names of Panel candidates who the public were supposed to dutifully and unthinkingly put their pencils beside in the polling booth.

O’Kelly may have declined a place on any coalition, at least if offered by Collins, but the issue remained forefront in the minds of his colleagues. Harry Boland would be frequently dispatched to ask Collins about how the setting up of their shared cabinet-to-be was faring, though to little avail:

Sometimes Boland would return and say Collins was too busy to see him. Sometimes he would meet Collins and report afterwards that Collins said he was faced with great difficulties and asked us to be patient.

Harry Boland

Getting a concrete answer out of Collins, even by a friend like Boland, was proving akin to pulling teeth. But then, Collins was under pressure, namely from his British partners, who regarded the Pact with alarm and suspicion. If Anti-Treatyites were to enter government in any shape or form, then what were the odds of the Treaty and its thorny terms being implemented? Very little, was the fear in Downing Street.

Collins had already refused one meeting in London, though Griffith went. What he said, O’Kelly did not know, but he presumed Griffith had told the British Ministers of his own dislike of the situation – that was hardly a secret. When Collins gave in to another summons, early in June, and travelled to the heart of the enemy Establishment:

We hated to see him go but we still believed he would stand up to the pressure of Lloyd George, [Winston] Churchill and their associates. We believed that if Michael Collins stood firmly by the Pact and all it implied and if he were assured that he had the united people of the old Movement behind him, backed up by a reunited army, all would yet be well.[25]

The problem was that all was not well; indeed, very far from it. “Thus was the Pact burst and repudiated by one of its two signatories,” O’Kelly wrote in conclusion of this chapter in his life’s story:

Thus also was the law of the land repudiated by the Minister who was to be the builder of the Coalition government. This, I believe, should be regarded as the real starting point of the civil war which followed soon after the bombshell was thrown by Michael Collins in Cork.[26]

The ‘bombshell’ in question was a speech made on the 14th June, from a hotel window to a crowd standing patiently in the pouring rain. After thanking his fellow Corkonians for the magnificent welcome laid out for him, Collins announced that he was now speaking, not from a political script, but his own mind. On Friday, the 16th, in two days’ time, they were to cast their votes. His advice, then, was for the citizens of Cork to choose the candidates they thought best.[27]

Michael Collins delivering a speech

“[Collins] had broken his own Pact,” wrote Ernie O’Malley, sharing in O’Kelly’s interpretation of what had happened.[28]

Polling Day

Both O’Kelly and O’Malley, of course, were writing from hindsight and possibly a need to extract their side from any liability in the conflict to come. As speeches go, Collins’ was not, on the face of it, a particularly dramatic one; certainly, he was not telling his audience not to vote for a Panel name. Adding to the ambiguity, or perhaps a sign that he feared he had said too much, he spoke the following day in Clonakility, as part of his tour of his South Cork constituency, this time urging listeners to put aside political views – which could only mean views on the Treaty – and vote for the current agreement in the spirit of unity as it was intended.

Tom Kelly

His last words to the electorate before polling day were thus a vouch for the Pact; in that regards, he was in tune with many others throughout the country who were also standing. In York Street, Dublin, Countess Markievicz and Alderman Charles Murphy shared a platform with Alderman Thomas Kelly and Dan MacCarthy, despite the anti and pro-Treaty stances of the latter and former respectively – a significant gesture in itself.

There was no question of the Treaty being an issue in this election, Markievicz said, that was something for consideration later. For now, they wanted law and order in Ireland, crops sown and work for the unemployed, for people to be content, with happy homes and better lives. They wanted unity to deal with the lingering question mark of North-East Ulster. Thus, she advised the electors to return the Panel candidates to their seats.[29]

Countess Markievicz

All of which was good, worthy stuff. That sense of consensus seemed to have trickled down to the public as a whole, at least to judge by the capital. “It would be hard to find a parallel to yesterday’s elections in Dublin,” reported the Irish Times on the 17th June. “Owing to the Collins-de Valera pact here was a complete absence of that acute party feeling which used to impart bitterness and excitement into such contests.”

There were, however, exceptions. Counting the paper ballots in the National University on Merrion Square, Dublin, where six candidates were competing for its four constituency seats, was coming to an end when fourteen or fifteen men entered the room and held up its occupants at gunpoint. The ballot-boxes were then removed outside to a waiting motorcar.

“Good evening, gentlemen” said the last of the intruders before departing.[30]

Ernie O’Malley

It had been a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so, Ernie O’Malley later told in his memoirs. He was minding his own business in the Four Courts when Rory O’Connor invited him to pay a visit to the National University, being anxious, O’Connor said, to see if the votes had been evenly distributed between pro and anti-Treaty Panel candidates. Although O’Connor acknowledged the potential embarrassment if nothing was found to be amiss, neither he nor O’Malley was troubled much about the almost casual theft they were committing.

Inspecting the pilfered papers that evening, back in the Four Courts, the two IRA leaders learnt that O’Connor’s suspicions had not been groundless, as the total tally revealed:[31]

Professor Michael Hayes (Panel, pro-Treaty) – 529

Professor Eoin MacNeill (Panel, pro-Treaty) – 528

Professor William Stockley (Panel, anti-Treaty) – 528

Professor William Magennis (Independent) – 483

Dr Ada English

The remaining two contenders, both falling short of the required support, were Dr Ada English (anti-Treaty) and Professor Conway (Independent). Previously, the National University had been equally shared by two Pro-Treatyites and two Anti-Treatyites. Now, with Magennis ascendant, the balance had shifted to three against one. If the Pact had worked as intended, then English would have been returned to her seat, Magennis kept out with the other Independent and the status quo preserved.[32]

Adding to O’Malley’s sense of betrayal, since he could read the names and addresses of individual voters on their ballot papers, he realised that “the Republicans had voted for Panel candidates; a few of the [Free] Staters had, but the majority, including some of their outstanding men, had broken the Pact” by voting for everyone but Anti-Treatyites.[33]

The Main Political Result

As the last of the votes were tallied, the full scale of the Republican defeat became glaringly evident. Before, the twelve seats for Dublin City had been a ratio of seven to five, with Pro-Treatyites holding the narrow advantage. They retained their seven seats, but their anti-Treaty counterparts had been vanquished: one went to Labour and three to Independents, including Darrell Figgis, giving him the last laugh.

Only Seán T. O’Kelly kept the Republican flag flying in the city and even he had to wait until the fifth recount before securing his Mid-Dublin seat. O’Kelly took the reversal to his cause with good grace, seconding the vote of thanks by the Lord Mayor to the Returning Officer, and acknowledging that the process had been performed fairly and efficiently.

Alfie Byrne

The pro-Treaty Panel winners refrained from saying anything too controversial, besides Dan MacCarthy’s complaint about the shortage of polling booths and his hope that things would be improved next time. Alfie Byrne, a former Home Ruler who had reinvented himself as an Independent (the first step in what was to be a highly successful career), was less diplomatic, stating that his victory equated to one for the Treaty and a message to President Griffith to get on with implementing it.[34]

If so, then it was a very loud message. Breaking down the numbers, the Irish Times noted how:

The main political result at once leaps to the eye. In Dublin, 72,285 citizens voted for the Treaty and 10,929 voted against the Treaty. In other words, Dublin voted 7 to 1 in favour of the Treaty. In the County of Dublin, the figures are still more remarkable. The pro-Treaty candidates received 46,936 votes, while the Republican votes amounted to 4,819. The county voted 10 to 1 in favour of the Treaty.[35]

Proportional representative only rubbed salt into the Republican wound. Recently adopted for Irish elections, its novelty was enough for at least one newspaper to provide instructions: no longer was a single X before the name of choice enough – “in fact to use it would spoil the paper,” warned the Anglo-Celt – but instead a row of numbers, based on preference, with 1 for the most favoured candidate, 2 for the second preference and so on.

“The Proportional System may seem a little involved at first,” read the Anglo-Celt soothingly, “but by remembering the foregoing hints, all electors should be able to mark their papers correctly.”[36]

A (Mis)calculated Risk

In South Dublin at least, the electors had grasped the innovation sufficiently to show the anti-Treaty nominees could not even trust what preferences they did get:

The two Republican candidates, Madame Markievicz and Mr. Murphy, held between them 5,258 votes, and it seemed certain that one of the two would be returned. But when Mr. Murphy, at the third count, was declared defeated, the supporters of Mr. Murphy, instead of giving the second choice en bloc to Madame Markievicz, showed divided views.

Only 692, or a little more than half, gave a second choice for her, although she was the second Republican candidate, while 397 gave the next choice to Mr. Kelly, the pro-Treaty candidate. This, in effect, destroyed the chance of the return of a representative of the Republicans.[37]

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Elsewhere, each constituency told its own tale. Labour was the big winner in Carlow-Kilkenny, where Padraig Gaffney topped the poll at 10,875 votes, with W.T. Cosgrave (7,071), Denis Gorey (6,122) and Gearóid O’Sullivan (2,681) earning enough of the electoral goodwill of their own to merit the remaining three placements. Gorey had not endured the siege of his house for nothing, it seemed. The four were Treaty supporters, while both the anti-Treaty contenders, Eamonn Aylward (3,365) and James Lennon (1,113), had been side-lined due to the majority of Labour voters giving their second preferences to a Treaty candidate.[38]

Pact or no Pact, the electors knew their own minds.

In the constituency of North, Mid and South Tipperary, things had been tighter, with the Anti-Treatyites retaining half of the four seats on offer:

Seamus Burke (Panel, pro-Treaty) – 9,309

Daniel Morrissey (Labour) – 7,819

Joseph MacDonagh (Panel, anti-Treaty) – 5,962

Patrick Moloney (Panel, anti-Treaty) – 4,960

Seamus Burke

Showing that one could never take the public for granted, and perhaps a sign that the Pact still held meaning for some, Moloney owed his win to the transfer of second preferences from Burke, despite the two men being on opposite sides of the big debate. Trailing at the bottom was the anti-Treaty Patrick O’Byrne, whose pittance of 586 votes was noted with some nonplus. Also eliminated, and “an even greater surprise,” noted the Nenagh Guardian, “was the defeat of Dan Breen [in neighbouring Waterford-East Tipperary] who had been selected by both sides of the Pact and whose election was regarded as certain.”[39]

Clearly, then, very little was certain in the days to come. Exactly how Breen planned to square his support from both sides of the Treaty split upon election is an interesting conundrum: he presumably assumed that the contradiction would be rendered irrelevant and national divisions submerged beneath the wave of mutually reinforcing votes for Panel nominees, allowing former comrades to arise as one once more. That had been the aim behind the Pact in the first place, albeit one that had gone badly awry – at least for the Anti-Treatyites.

“They calculated that in this way they would have the same position in the new Dáil as in the old,” wrote Collins, doing his best not to overtly gloat. “But their calculations were upset by the people themselves.”[40]

Manufacturing War

The question, then, was: what next?

Pádraig Ó Fathaigh

The whole point of the Pact had been to remove the element of chance, rendering the process as a choreographed game of musical chairs in which everyone shuffled about, putting on a display of activity, before resuming the same seats as before. Confidence could reach the point of complacency: as election agent for the Anti-Treatyites in South Galway, Pádraig Ó Fathaigh had assumed the Pact would enfold as intended. News that fellow Sinn Féiners were forgoing this to lend a helping hand to the Labour campaign angered him; even so, he had found alarming the indifference of his two candidates, Liam Mellows and Frank Fahy:

Both refused to hold any meetings, to canvass or do anything to further their interests as candidates. I told them that the electors would become careless if they did not meet them, and would consider they were being made little of.[41]

It was advice to which the Anti-Treatyites should have paid heed. Instead of rubber-stamping the names before them, the contumacious masses actually took the election literally. Since the rules of the Pact had been so wilfully overturned, did that mean the next intended stage – the joining of the pro and anti-Treaty parties into one ruling body – was likewise to be pushed aside?

(Left to right) Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera

So pondered the Irish Times:

The results of the elections, which are regarded everywhere as a Treaty triumph, are likely to change the plans of the Republican section. It is probable, says our Political Correspondent, that the Coalition Government provided for in the Collins-de Valera pact will not now function, and that the onus of administrating the Treaty will be left to Messrs. Griffith and Collins, who will have the benefits of an appreciable majority.

Rory O’Connor

Which assumed Republicans would be gracious losers. Judging by contemporary reactions, many did not see themselves as having lost at all. The election did not even warrant a mention at the IRA Convention, held in the Mansion House, a mere two days later on the 18th June. Instead, the agenda was about whether to attack the remaining British troops in Dublin, thereby restarting the war and derailing the Treaty for good. There was no talk of ‘coalition’ then, nor of ‘mandate’ or ‘working majority’ which the attendees failed to form even amongst themselves. The Convention ended in a tantrum: denied another war, Rory O’Connor withdrew with a splinter group to the Four Courts and locked out the rest, creating a schism within a schism.[42] 

Even Anti-Treatyites who paid attention to the poll results did not seem fazed by their crushing defeat. While acknowledging that “the elections showed that the people favoured the Treaty and our party lost many seats,” Harry Boland still waited for “a call from Mick [Collins] as to the men on our side who would be required to fill the posts in the Cabinet, in accordance with the agreement.” Boland was writing this to a friend on the 13th July 1922, a fortnight into the Civil War and less than a month before his death.[43]

‘The Funeral of Harry Boland’, by Jack B. Yeats

De Valera also nurtured fantasies of a world where the Pact had averted disaster. “Had Mick and Griffith died before they broke the pact,” he wrote on the 10th September, “I believe the four of us – [Austin] Stack, Mulcahy, [Eoin] MacNeill and myself, could have worked the pact and beaten England by it.” Notably, there is no sense of responsibility on either Boland’s or de Valera’s part, both preferring to point fingers at others, whether the Pro-Treatyites or the British. Or both together. As it had been British artillery in Irish hands bombarding the Four Courts, it was obvious to Boland that the ongoing conflict was a “British manufactured war on the Republic.”[44]

anti-treaty-poster-freedomComing to Heel

Blaming the ancestral foe provided a useful balm in Republican reminiscences. “In the House of Commons on June 26th [1922],” wrote Seán T. OKelly:

Lloyd George and Churchill in the course of speeches on the situation in Ireland insinuated that an ultimatum had been served on Collins. That nature of this ultimatum was not specified but it seems reasonable now to infer that Collins was ordered to have the Republican forces driven out of the Four Courts or that they, the British, would order their own forces to undertake this task.[45]

Despite this fluttering red flag and the shift of the domestic position in favour of the Pro-Treatyites, O’Kelly was dumbfounded when artillery shells began pounding the Four Courts. Assuming Collins was merely playacting to placate his British partners, O’Kelly tried contacting him, first by phone and then letter, to no avail. O’Kelly was in the Hammond Hotel, O’Connell Street, hoping against hope that the brink could be stepped back from, when word reached him that the Pro-Treatyites were now turning their attention – and their guns – to there as well.[46]

Free State artillery in Dublin during the Civil War

To O’Kelly, the only explanation for this shocking turn of events was that “the British by their threats had forced Collins to come to heel again.”[47]

He was not altogether wrong, as a letter had arrived from Downing Street, demanding immediate action against the Four Courts and all other armed holdouts. But Collins needed no prompting. As he saw it, the electoral majority had granted the Pro-Treatyites carte blanche to do what they will, Pact or no Pact – which may have been his intent from the start. Behind closed doors, Collins, Griffith and the rest of the Cabinet agreed to jump on the first casus belli that came their way. When this appeared in the form of General ‘Ginger’ O’Connell’s arrest in Dublin by Anti-Treatyites, the civilian and military leadership of the nascent Free State convened to ponder how long a war might take. About a week, maybe two, assured Gearoíd O’Sullivan as Adjutant-General.[48]

Free State troops attack the Four Courts, June 1922

It was a bad miscalculation, one of many in 1922. Both sides had grasped the Pact Election as an opportunity, ostensibly for peace, but mostly to wring whatever advantages they could. For the Anti-Treatyites: an election in name only in return for a deal; for the Pro-Treatyites, a deal in name only in return for an election. Naturally, when it all went belly-up, the whole ridiculous business became another slingshot in the ‘blame game’ exchange.

Piaras Béaslaí

“The Collins-de Valera Pact might have saved the nation, but the wiseacres again, agreeing to the Pact when they were weak, broke it when they thought they were strong,” O’Malley wrote to the press in August 1922. He was by then conducting a guerrilla war against the Free State and its supporters, such as Piaras Béaslaí who did not quite refute the charges of opportunism when he described how Collins and his cohorts had previously been “hampered by their small majority in the Dáil, and the absence of a clear mandate from the country on the Treaty issue, but the result of the General Election placed them in a strong position to assert their authority.”[49]

And assert they would. Two very different versions of the same event, but a word used by both is ‘strong’ and, at the end of the day, that was what really counted: not honour, not mandates, not brotherhood, not even pacts, but strength.


[1] Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 43

[2] Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, 25/05/1922

[3] Ibid, 27/04/1922

[4] Brennan, Robert (BMH / WS 799, Section III), pp. 162-4

[5] Ibid, pp. 175-6

[6] Irish Times, 22/05/1922

[7] Ibid, pp. 176-7

[8] Poblacht Na h-Eireann, 30/05/1922

[9] Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 205

[10] Connolly, Joseph (edited by Gaughan, J. Anthony) Memoirs of Senator Joseph Connolly (1885-1961): A Founder of Modern Ireland (Dublin: Academic Press, 1996), pp. 227-8

[11] Poblacht Na h-Eireann, 01/06/1922

[12] Irish Times, 31/05/1922

[13] Nenagh Guardian, 10/06/1922

[14] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1964), p. 168

[15] Nenagh Guardian, 10/06/1922

[16] O’Brien, William (as told to MacLysaght, Edward) Forth the Banners Go (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969), pp. 220-2

[17] Kilkenny People, 10/06/1922

[18] Irish Times, 07/06/1922

[19] Ibid, 13/06/1922

[20] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alan. For the Life of Me (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958), p. 158

[21] Irish Times, 13/06/1922

[22] Briscoe and Hatch, pp. 148, 156

[23] Ibid, pp. 160-1

[24] ‘How the Pact was Broken’, NLI, MS 27,702(6), pp. 2-4

[25] Ibid, pp. 5-7

[26] Ibid, p. 8

[27] Irish Times, 15/06/1922

[28] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 105

[29] Irish Times, 16/06/1922

[30] Ibid, 17/06/1922

[31] O’Malley, pp. 105-6

[32] Irish Times, 17/06/1922

[33] O’Malley, p. 106

[34] Irish Times, 20/06/1922

[35] Ibid, 21/06/1922

[36] Anglo-Celt, 17/06/1922

[37] Irish Times, 21/06/1922

[38] Kilkenny People, 24/06/1922

[39] Nenagh Guardian, 24/06/1922

[40] Collins, Michael. The Path to Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 1996), p. 10

[41] Ó Faithaigh, Pádraig (edited by McMahon, Timothy G.) Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000), p. 88

[42] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 106

[43] Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1972), p. 120

[44] Ibid, pp. 120, 125

[45] ‘Civil War Begins’, NLI, MS 27,702(6), p. 1

[46] Ibid, p. 4

[47] Ibid, p. 2

[48] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 147-8

[49] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 117 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume II (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 262



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

Breen, Dan. My Fight For Irish Freedom (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1964)

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alan. For the Life of Me (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1958)

Collins, Michael. The Path to Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 1996)

Connolly, Joseph (edited by Gaughan, J. Anthony) Memoirs of Senator Joseph Connolly (1885-1961): A Founder of Modern Ireland (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996)

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

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)

O’Brien, William (as told to MacLysaght, Edward) Forth the Banners Go (Dublin: The Three Candles Limited, 1969)

Ó Fathaigh, Pádraig (edited by McMahon, Timothy G.) Pádraig Ó Fathaigh’s War of Independence: Recollections of a Galway Gaelic Leaguer (Cork: Cork University Press, 2000)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)



Irish Times

Kilkenny People

Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland

Nenagh Guardian

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Brennan, Robert, WS 799

National Library of Ireland

Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh Papers

The Best of A Bad Job: The Irish Pact Election of June 1922 (Part I)

Breaking News

Unlike before, there were no armed guards at the entrances to the National University, Dublin, allowing anyone to walk in off the street to see the Dáil in action, on the 20th May 1922. Not that many did and the few members of the public, who had gathered outside, passed the time by reading newspapers when not gazing indifferently up at the top-storey windows. Either politics had become old hat or people were losing faith in parliamentary procedures making a difference. After all, previous attempts had recently been made to resolve the deadlock in the country, only to end in miserable failure each time.

National Concert Hall, Dublin, formerly the National University which housed the Dáil in early 1922

A very different atmosphere was found inside the building. Delegates talked and mingled, their conversations punctuated by the odd burst of laughter as they waited in the long hall, beside the chamber where they were to formally meet. As one attendee observed:

A group of anti-Treaty deputies sitting on the broad staircase leading to the Science room, rows of them, all smiling as if they were having their photographs taken.

Liam Mellows

Liam Mellows struck a casual pose, his legs far apart and hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches, as he chatted with Richard Mulcahy. That the two enemies were so relaxed in each other’s company was proof enough that some novelty was in the air. In contrast, the President of Dáil Éireann, Arthur Griffith, sat silently, arms folded and head down, a frown creasing his face.

Showing more spark was his colleague Michael Collins, who moved between the partisans of the anti-Treaty side and his own, perfectly at ease as he posed questions and smiled at the replies. When Harry Boland flitted by, those he passed thought they could recognise Griffith’s handwriting on the sheet of paper he held, but Boland moved too quickly for them to be sure.

Boland’s appearance was taken as a signal that the Dáil was about to open and, by unspoken agreement, the assembled deputies streamed into the chamber and took their seats. As the Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, rose to begin, the light from the lower windows framed him from behind, almost like a halo.

Eoin MacNeill

He read out the document that Collins and Éamon de Valera, on behalf of the pro and anti-Treaty parties respectively, had just put their names to. It was an agreement that, for the upcoming general election, candidates would be put forward from a ‘National Coalition Panel’ consisting of both the opposing factions. Instead of competing against each other, Pro and Anti-Treatyites would run on the same platform, under the same Sinn Féin name and for the sake of the same ideal: unity.

There had been little enough of that as it was.

Griffith then stood up and, with a funereally air, moved that, on the basis of what they had just heard, the Dáil should thus call for such an election.

“Does that mean that the House approves of the agreement?” asked de Valera.

When Griffith answered that it did, de Valera was all smiles: “Then I have great pleasure in seconding the President’s motion.”

Éamon de Valera

As the deputies left the room, their business complete, Collins continued mingling with the opposition, calling out to Anti-Treatyites who, months before, had been his comrades-in-arms, then sworn foes, and now bosom buddies once again. De Valera was more circumspect as he quietly took his leave, looking younger than he had for a long time. Griffith had already departed, walking straight ahead without sparing as much as a glance for anyone, a hint that all was not well behind closed doors. It was left to Mulcahy to provide some sort of explanation, albeit a terse and indirect one, to the mystified journalists inquiring about the meaning of what they had just seen.

“It means that we have not adopted the solution suggested by the Irish Times,” he said cryptically.[1]

‘Wrangling Over a Corpse’

The newspaper in question certainly made its surprise known in its coverage of this latest twist in the Irish tale. What baffled its editorial was why the Pro-Treatyites had agreed to such a thing, since “a general election on the issue of the Treaty would have returned the Provisional Government to office with an overwhelming majority.”

Yet, despite their strong hand, “Mr Collins and Mr Griffith have consented to allow Republicans into the new Parliament in their present strength and to give them a virtual equality in the next Executive.” Adding to the confusion, with the promise of more to come, was how “the new Executive, which was to have enforced the Free State Constitution, will contain, by pre-arrangement, declared enemies of the Free State.”

Michael Collins (left) and Arthur Griffith (right)

And this was after Collins:

…declared a few days ago that, if the peace negotiations [between the pro and anti-Treaty sides] should fail, he would begin to enforce the law in the teeth of political resistance. The negotiations have succeeded and the resistance presumably has been turned into co-operation.

A co-operation, that is, with “the tyranny of the ‘gunmen’.” So much, then, for all the tough talk about the law and its enforcement. The only explanation the Irish Times could think of for this startling submissiveness was that both Collins and Griffith:

…are appalled by the state of Ireland, that they have asked the Republicans to combine with them in a great effort to restore order, and that an agreement is the price of such co-operation.

While the newspaper clearly did not overly care for this price, it announced itself – contrary to what Mulcahy might have assumed – prepared to make the best of the situation at hand:

In Heaven’s name, then, let the effort be made without further loss of time. The country is far advanced on the road to ruin, and, if matters do not improve quickly, the two parties in the proposed “Coalition” Executive will find themselves wrangling over a corpse.[2]

Hyperbole, this was not. Ireland had been dangerously in a state of disarray since December 1921, with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which ended one war – with Britain – and opened another conflict – with itself.

IRA men patrolling Grafton Street, Dublin, 1922

Stampeded into War

Though the agreement had been ratified by the Dáil a month later, that did not mean it was accepted by all, particularly those in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) for whom anything less than a Republic was unacceptable – and this British-mandated Free State that the Treaty allowed fell very, very short in their eyes. When a sixteen-strong Executive was formed in March 1922 – consisting of men such as Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Ernie O’Malley and others who already held senior posts in the IRA – its first act was to pledge fidelity solely to the Republic, with no room for the Treaty, the Free State, the Provisional Government – and possibly for democracy.

Attendees as the IRA Convention of March 1922

“A resolution to proclaim the elections which were to be held in Southern Ireland was discussed at a meeting” of the IRA Executive, recounted O’Malley in his memoirs:

The Treaty would be the issue of elections to be held in the twenty-six counties only…Unless England withdrew her threat of war no election should be held. There was a majority in favour of proclaiming the elections, but no decision was arrived at, as a unanimous vote would be needed to take such an important step.[3]

Ernie O’Malley

While a potentially catastrophic line had avoided being crossed, the possibility remained; after all, the Executive had not decided not to forbid a future general election. It was not so much the principle of one that the Executive opposed; just that, in such a contest, the anti-Treaty partisans would almost certainly come off the worst.

This risk was forefront in the minds of the five Republican representatives who met in the Mansion House, Dublin, at the start of May 1922, opposite another quintet from the pro-Treaty grouping, as part of the ten-person ‘Peace Committee’. Set up at the behest of the Dáil, the Committee was to explore potential avenues for a compromise – and the sooner the better, for while they sat and talked behind closed doors, contingency plans were being laid in preparation for the worst.

The IRA Executive had already claimed the Four Courts for its headquarters, around which snipers would be posted in the event of a war with the Free Staters. O’Malley went further in arranging for barrels of petrol and paraffin to be stored in the cellars in order to raze the Four Courts utterly should it fall into enemy hands. Elsewhere in the city, bridges were to be destroyed and street barricades raised to trap the enemy in place for counterattacks.[4]

Armed men and barricades in Dublin, 1922

A Let Down

Even if not all of the Peace Committee attendees were aware of these preparations, they must have anticipated the consequences if they failed. For the next three weeks, both halves did their best, often sitting long into the night. While all ten agreed on the benefits of a general election in breaking the deadlock, for the Anti-Treatyites it meant exposing themselves to the judgment of an unfriendly electorate.

Kathleen Clarke

“It would in effect be penalising them for their vote against the Treaty,” as how Kathleen Clarke, the Chairwoman of the Committee (and widow of the 1916 Signatory), put it. Which was fine by their pro-Treaty counterparts, who argued that the Dáil needed a solid working majority; not so much for Clarke and her colleagues, also desirous of a bloodless resolution but not at the cost of political hara-kiri.

A climb-down on the Anti-Treatyites’ part suddenly materialised when one of their five, Harry Boland, came back, uncharacteristically late from lunch, to inform the other five that they could go ahead and permit a general election, even if it meant writing off some of their seats.

“The Chief says we can agree,” Boland added, referring to de Valera.

This, Clarke and Liam Mellows refused to accept. When a conference of anti-Treaty politicos was held that night in their Suffolk Street offices to confirm, de Valera denied agreeing to any such thing, claiming a misunderstanding on Boland’s part, despite the other man’s heated protestations to the contrary. The stormy exchange dragged on even after the meeting closed, with the two men remaining behind in the room to argue it out while Clarke and another female deputy, Madge Clifford, waited in a taxi outside for Boland to accompany them.

Minutes ticked by. When Clarke went back inside and up the stairs, she heard through the door Boland and de Valera still speaking to – or, rather, shouting at – each other. “It’s alright, Chief, you let me down,” Boland said.

Harry Boland

Having reached the top of the landing, Clarke made a noise to alert the pair of her presence. Without another word, Boland finally took his leave and came down the stairs with Clarke, joining her and Clifford in the ride back to their respective accommodations. Of what had transpired between him and their political potentate, Boland said not a thing.

The next day, Clarke, Mellows and Boland sat across from Seán Mac Eoin, Pádraig Ó Malley and Séamus O’Dwyer, and repeated their line that, while a general election was permissible, anything that would benefit one side at the expense of the other – as in their own – was not. With a stand-off reached and nothing beyond, all that was left for the Peace Committee to do was admit its failure to the Dáil,

Still, the three weeks of talk were not a complete waste. A proposal for a Coalition Government, one consisting of members from both sides, had been drafted on the last day of the Committee and forwarded to the Dáil as the best that could be offered for the moment. Next up was the turn of Collins and de Valera, the standard-bearers of their respective parties, to sit down together in the hope of a breakthrough. The next Dáil session was due for the 20th May 1922, during which the two leaders would announce their results – if there was anything worth showing, that is.[5]

Picking the Fruit

A crack in the impasse was hinted at when John Chartres called in at 91 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, the house of Seán T. O’Kelly, at 10 pm on the Friday of the 19th May. Chartres had worked as a secretary for the Irish Plenipotentiaries who had negotiated the Treaty in London, while O’Kelly was TD for Dublin Mid, and though each had chosen different sides – Chartres for the Treaty, O’Kelly against – the pair remained friends.

90-1 St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

The news was not good, Chartres confided in O’Kelly, for while he was convinced of Collins’ desire for peace, he was also certain that his talks with de Valera would only result in more dashed hopes. To prevent this, he begged his host, in the course of the two or three hours they spent conversing, to step in:

He insisted also that now was the right moment. The atmosphere was propitious and action taken by us that same night, if we would agree to intervene, was sure of good fruit.

John Chartres

Midnight had long passed by the time Chartres took his leave. Seán O’Kelly continued talking, now with his wife, Mary Kate O’Kelly (née Ryan), who had been present, about what their guest had brought to his attention.  O’Kelly was sceptical as to the sincerity of the other side, who were sure to insist that the Treaty be included in any deal, with Mary Kate being more hopeful. Her sister, Mimi, after all, was married to Richard Mulcahy, giving her as much personal stake as anyone in the matter.

With sleep that night an impossibility, the couple decided that Mary Kate would use her connection and call Mimi that Saturday morning, before 8 am, and arrange a get-together between their husbands. When Richard Mulcahy, on the other end of the phone, suggested they meet in the government buildings, O’Kelly counter-proposed the more neutral territory of the Gaelic League on Ely Place. This was agreed, and when the pair met at 9 am:

I outlined to Mulcahy my plans for an agreed peace. They were only a rough outline but were on the lines of the pact that was agreed later that day. Mulcahy, after some criticism of some of the details of my proposals and making some suggestion of amendments here and there, said he believed the proposition I made would be acceptable to his side.

Would it be so to Collins, O’Kelly asked? The Corkman wore a variety of hats: Chairman of the Provisional Government, Minister for Finance and, perhaps most importantly, ‘the man who had won the war’. Obtaining his support was critical, which Mulcahy thought likely. To make sure, he offered to bring the man in question over so O’Kelly could hear for himself. He drove off in his car and returned to Ely Place, a speedy ten or fifteen minutes later, with Collins beside him.

Richard Mulcahy

After O’Kelly repeated what he and Mulcahy had gone over, Collins said he was willing to try but – in an echo of O’Kelly’s question about him – what were the chances of bringing de Valera on board? He and Collins were due to meet again at noon, the last such encounter before reporting to the Dáil. O’Kelly promised to talk to de Valera. In addition, he offered to attend the summit between the two leaders if he could, with the addition of Boland since he and Collins were still close.

O’Kelly found de Valera in the Republican Party offices in Suffolk Street, chairing a gathering of their colleagues in preparation for the Dáil session. De Valera had already informed them that the odds of any sort of breakthrough with Collins later that day was remote, but O’Kelly asked if he could announce something important:

I then told of my own meeting with Mulcahy and Collins that morning. I told the whole story and its beginning and end. I added my firm conviction that Collins and Mulcahy really wished for peace, an agreed election and later a coalition government.

Not all present were so trusting, but the notion at least was not dismissed out of hand. De Valera had to depart for his appointment with Collins, leaving O’Kelly to oversee the rest of the discussion. O’Kelly told them of his intent to join the pair in their talk and, after some questions, the others agreed to grant him carte blanche to do what he judged best.

(Left from right) Seán T. O’Kelly, his wife Mary Kate and Harry Boland

From Abuse To Agreement

Off O’Kelly went to the Mansion House, accompanied by Boland, where they met Mulcahy, who told them that so far no progress had been made between de Valera and Collins, and that was the way it looked to stay. Undeterred, O’Kelly entered the meeting-room, with Boland and Mulcahy in tow, to find the other two seated at a table.

The Mansion House, Dublin

How far had they gone in looking through the Peace Committee proposals, O’Kelly inquired?

“We haven’t got past the first b_____ line,” Collins replied, his language being saltier than O’Kelly’s, who primly censured the expletive in his memoirs.

Well, I suggested, let us now start with the last paragraph of that report and work backwards. I am going to act as the chairman. Thus, we five started. There was heated argument, there was abuse, which sometimes almost led to violence but after about three hours [of] argument the Pact was made and signed by the two leaders.

Laurence O’Neill

By then it was 4 pm. Lunch had been completely forgotten, as everyone suddenly and keenly realised. The Lord Mayor, Laurence O’Neill, came to their rescue with sandwiches and coffee, while his secretaries typed up copies of the Pact. They were late enough as it was, since the Dáil was supposed to open at 3 pm, and so both Collins and de Valera agreed to quickly convene their respective parties in private and secure their consensus before announcing anything.

O’Kelly accompanied his leader as:

De Valera made his report to the anti-Treaty deputies. After a good many questions had been asked and explanations given his report and the Pact he had signed was unanimously approved.

At the other end, however, things did not go so smoothly.

Seán T. O’Kelly

O’Kelly was in the council chamber of the National University in anticipation of the Dáil, when Boland appeared with the request from Collins to see him outside. There was a bump in the road, a doleful Collins told O’Kelly, in the form of Griffith, who was furious with what Collins had brought to him. Other pro-Treaty TDs such as Seán Milroy and Seán McGarry were in angry agreement with the President, and it looked as if the Pact would grind to a halt before it had even began.

O’Kelly was not impressed. “You are running away,” he told the other man:

Can’t you be a man of your word? You are the Boss. You have signed the Pact. You have the power to force it through. Go back and do so.

O’Kelly expected an enraged Collins, one who would curse and shout and match him, verbal blow by verbal blow. Instead, ‘the man who had won the war’ took the challenge on the chin, with a resigned – even mournful, O’Kelly thought – manner. He would go back and try again, he said.

O’Kelly lost track of time as he waited for Collins to return. When he did, it was to again admit defeat. Griffith was not to be moved. Could O’Kelly try instead? O’Kelly thought it a strange request under the circumstances but said that he would.

Arthur Griffith

When Griffith came out, he and O’Kelly met in one of the empty classrooms inside the University. They talked for about fifteen minutes, or rather O’Kelly did, as he pointed to the state of their country. Former comrades were at each other’s throats and internecine strife liable to erupt at any moment. Should Griffith bar the Pact from passing and the worst happened, then the blame would fall on his shoulders. If nothing else, the Pact would provide breathing space and maybe – who knows? – some sort of lasting solution would be found in the meantime.

O’Kelly was begging by the time Griffith relented. He would withdraw his opposition, he said, and was as good as his word when the Dáil finally opened and it was given to him as its president to formally propose that the deputies approve the deal. They did so, and the Pact became, as O’Kelly put it, the law of the land.[6]

As if it was as simple as that.

From Mick to Mr Collins

If not quite the father of the agreement, then Boland could claim at least to be its midwife. “I worked very hard to secure unity and am quite happy with the present situation,” he wrote in a letter on the 30th May 1922. “The whole game is now in the hands of Mr Collins.”

(Left to right) Harry Boland, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera in happier times

Which, as dear a friend as Collins was, did not leave Boland entirely at ease:

We shall see how he will act. I, for one, would like to think that he will direct all his actions towards the Republic. I cannot say that I doubt him; yet I am uneasy as to his intentions.[7]

Overlooked in these reluctant suspicions was Griffith. Holding up the Pact, even if only for a short while, was one of the few displays of power he managed for, despite his exalted role as President, Griffith was becoming an irrelevance, a totemic figure much honoured but barely consulted. “There were always a lot of men in and out to see him,” remembered his secretary, Elizabeth MacGinley, “but nothing of any importance was every discussed, at least when I was present.”

Even Collins’ visits were rare, and the only discussion of note between them that MacGinley witnessed was about the Pact:

Griffith was totally against it and I was present when he tried to prevail on Michael Collins to abandon the idea. But Collins had given his word and believed the arrangement wold be successful and would bring about a reconciliation between the parties. Therefore, in spite of his eloquent pleading Griffith failed to divert Collins from his purpose.[8]

It was not the first time the two leaders of the Free State differed on what direction they should take the country. According to Ernest Blythe, “Griffith seemed to me to have made up his mind at a comparatively early stage that the conflict was inevitable,” while Collins swung from pugnacious anger to diplomatic restraint.

As an example of these shifts in mood:

Once he came back after having been prevented from visiting Terence McSwiney’s grave in Cork, he appeared to be fully determined on drastic action, but within a few days he was in a different frame of mind.

If Collins blew hot and cold, then Griffith at least knew his own mind – his problem was, however, that he seldom expressed it. The only speech that Blythe remembered him delivering to the Cabinet was in March 1922, during the stand-off in Limerick between pro and anti-Treaty forces that was threatening to spill out into violence, only three months after the Treaty ratification.

IRA men in Limerick during the stand-off in early 1922

To Griffith, it was a moment of decision, the time for them to take responsibility as a government now that they were one. If there was to be a war, best get it over and done with, rather than let the country rot with lawlessness. Inwardly, Blythe agreed but kept his silence, aware that it would be the Corkman making the final call.

Liam Lynch

As Collins could not bear the thought of turning guns on his old comrades, he eagerly grasped the olive-branch proffered by Mulcahy, who vouched for Liam Lynch’s ability to mediate a climb-down for both sides in Limerick. Though Lynch was in the anti-Treaty camp, he was also desirous of an amicable solution. In that, Collins had much in common with him – more so, in any case, than he had with Griffith, who began to refer to his minister, with icy civility, as ‘Mr Collins’, rather than ‘Mick’ or ‘Collins’ like before.[9]

It is questionable whether Collins noticed the difference, considering how withdrawn Griffith had become. “His silences were the most expressive evidence” of his dissatisfaction, according to MacGinley. “I rarely heard him discuss the situation with anybody.”[10]

A Hair’s Breadth

Little wonder, then, that Griffith was increasingly isolated inside the government whose prerogatives he championed. The decision to go ahead with the Pact was a particularly painful moment for him. Several others among the pro and anti-Treaty deputies, seated together, had chosen in its favour before the vote came round the table for the President’s turn.

a56c3352889142c2aaf1ba5c288b3785As he waited, Blythe could not help but notice the state Griffith was in:

He worked nervously with his neck-tie in silence. He took off his glasses and wiped them, and I noticed that his hand was shaking so that he could hardly hold them. He put on his glasses, fiddled with his tie again; again he took off his glasses and wiped them, the whole thing occupying, it seemed to me, three of our minutes while dead silence reigned round the table.

Ernest Blythe

In that brief, but excruciating, amount of time, Griffith held the balance of power in the room. Had he said no, the Pact would be dead in the water and the Cabinet split – not that, in Blythe’s opinion, many would be too upset, considering the reservations about the Pact by many, even those who had already consented.

As it was, Griffith sealed the deal with a simple “I agree” and that was that.[11]

Before reconciling itself to the outcome, the Irish Times may have been speaking for itself when it declared how “the Irish people have run the whole gamut of astonishment and disillusionment in recent months.” Griffith’s about-turn, in particular, was worthy of note:

On Friday last Mr Griffith announced that the issue of the Treaty, the whole Treaty, and nothing but the Treaty, would be submitted to free elections in June. Within twenty-four hours the new agreement, to which Mr Griffith assents, was given to the world, and the word ‘Treaty’ is not mentioned once.

Far from resolving the controversy that had been blighting Ireland, this new-fangled Pact seemed set only in making it worse: “The Free State Party has given everything to the Republicans, including things which it had no title to give. What have the Republicans given in return?”

IRA men

The answer was simple: peace. And yet where were the guarantees of even that?

Will the Freemasons’ Hall, the Four Courts and other public and private buildings in Dublin be restored immediately to their proper uses? Will the Republican forces in the South combine to suppress the raids and bank robberies which are destroying the country’s trade?

To this:

The text of the agreement offers no clue. We cannot believe, however, that the bargain is so one-sided as it seems to be. Mr Griffith, a man of strong and consistent principles, can have made his strange volte face only under the pressure of some truly compelling argument.[12]

Griffith would not have disagreed, at least about the ‘pressure’ part. Feeling that the choice had been less a case of ‘compelling’ and more one forced on him, he made no secret of his dislike, either of the Pact or of the Chairman to his own government, being “within a hair’s breadth of breaking with Collins,” in Blythe’s opinion – as though the country needed a further split. If the stress of it all had been enough to drive Boland and de Valera into a shouting match, then pro-Treaty partnerships were likewise straining at the seams.[13]

Anti-Treaty cartoon, lampooning Griffith and Collins

Sneaking Through a Verdict

Collins himself would come to regard the whole episode as something of an old shame if his subsequent explanation is something to go by. “An agreement was reached between Mr. de Valera and myself for which I have been severely criticised,” he admitted in his public writings:

It was said that I gave away too much, that I went too far to meet them, that I had exceeded my powers in making a pact which, to some extent, interfered with the people’s right to make a free and full choice at the elections.[14]

Michael Collins

On that particular point, he offered no rebuttal. When interviewing Collins some months later, in the midst of the Civil War, the journalist Hayden Talbot noted the reticence of his subject against expressing any sort of personal opinion on the Pact, preferring to stick to the dry facts and nothing further.[15]

To even a devoted follower of Collins, “perhaps all that can be said in [the Pact’s] favour was that it was an attempt to make the best of a bad job, a last desperate effort to find a way out in face of the threat of civil war,” wrote Piaras Béaslaí:

Without it, in view of the attitude of the armed [anti-Treaty] Irregulars, it would have been impossible to hold a free election. The opponents of the Treaty, in fact, used the threat of the guns to secure a representation which they could not have obtained on the free vote of the people.

Despite his own success in the election-to-come, voted to the seat of Kerry-Limerick West, Béaslaí claimed that, if not for the fact he was out of the country at the time, he “would not have consented to being put on the panel, as I disproved of the ‘pact’ on principle.”[16]

Piaras Béaslaí

But, if Collins was genuine to a fault in his desire for peace, and sentimental towards wayward comrades-in-arms like Lynch and Boland at the expense of offending current allies, he also had a calculating side, in Blythe’s view: “Collins, in entering the Pact, was undoubtedly actuated mainly, if not entirely, by a desire to get some sort of a popular verdict over the Treaty.”

For the Irish Times was quite correct in guessing that any gains from the Pact were not limited to one side – in the long run, anyway. Previously, Collins had tried to arrange with de Valera a plebiscite on the basis that:

Collins knew such a plebiscite would show an overwhelming majority for the Treaty and should justify any action that might have to be taken if the recalcitrant armed forces continued along the path they had been taking.

While de Valera had rejected the idea of a plebiscite, Collins was sure that a general election, Pact or otherwise, would be the next best thing: “Collins felt that even under the Pact a test of popular opinion could be obtained.”[17]

A very jolly Michael Collins

And now Collins was about to have one. As for what would happen next, well, who could say…?

To be continued in: The Worst of a Good Deal: The Irish Pact Election of June 1922 (Part II)


[1] Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, 25/05/1922

[2] Irish Times, 23/05/1922

[3] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 86-7

[4] Ibid, pp. 95, 103

[5] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), pp. 265-7

[6] National Library of Ireland (NLI), Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh Papers, MS 27,702(6), ‘The Pact – Law of the Land’, pp. 1-9

[7] Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1972), p. 118

[8] MacGinley, Elizabeth (BMH / WS 860), pp. 9-10

[9] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), pp. 142-5

[10] MacGinley, p. 10

[11] Blythe, p. 144

[12] Irish Times, 22/05/1922

[13] Blythe, p. 144

[14] Collins, Michael. The Path to Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 1996), p. 10

[15] Talbot, Hayden (introduction by de Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story – Told to Hayden Talbot (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), p. 185

[16] Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume II (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), pp. 258-9

[17] Blythe, pp. 145-6



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

Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)

Collins, Michael. The Path to Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 1996)

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

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Talbot, Hayden (introduction by de Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story – Told to Hayden Talbot (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)


Irish Times

Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

MacGinley, Elizabeth, WS 860

National Library of Ireland

Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh Papers

The Outsider Inside, the Insider Outside: Patrick McCartan and his Role in the Irish Revolution, 1916-22

Tyrone accent, small brown eyes, regular nose, pale complexion, long face…has a habit of looking in a shifty way from side to side and downwards when speaking to anyone…keeps hands in trouser pockets; peculiar gait, takes long steps and looks shaky at the knees when walking.[1]

(Police description of Patrick McCartan, May 1916)

Choosing the Best Man

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, even for the Irish Times, but, so explained its editorial, a higher principle was at stake: should the Presidency of Éire be defined by party machinery or individual worth? While elections in Ireland were nothing new, the one in June 1945 for the head of the twenty-six county state was a first. Dr Douglas Hyde had secured that honour seven years by unanimous agreement of the nation’s elite; among his many achievements, Hyde belonged to no political camp and was thus an uncontroversial choice. But now the electorate had come to a three-pronged fork in the road, with a trio of candidates before them: two titans in Seán T. O’Kelly and Seán Mac Eoin, and a third hopeful, Dr Patrick McCartan.

mccartan45presThat McCartan was running at all was a surprise, considering he had only just about secured the minimal number of signatures on his nomination papers, these being from TDs and senators in the Farmers Party. This was despite McCartan not standing on their platform, or for any faction for that matter, as opposed to the blocs – and powerful ones at that – behind the other two contenders: Fianna Fáil for O’Kelly and Fine Gael for Mac Eoin.[2]

Which made McCartan’s chances something of a long shot but, for some, his independent status was part of his appeal. “We are glad Dr McCartan has been nominated,” wrote the Irish Times:

We believe that he is a true patriot whose abiding interest is the welfare of the State. Undoubtedly his candidature will have a profound effect on the outcome of next week’s election. By his challenge to the two big parties he has shown himself to be a man of courage as well as of principle. He is fighting a lone battle; but we are convinced that he will not lack popular support.

Sean Mac Eoin old
Sean Mac Eoin

There were grounds for believing the last point: a straw poll conducted by the newspaper put its favourite’s support at 30.75%, not so far behind Mac Eoin’s 32.48%. The remaining 36.75% had O’Kelly at the fore but, if his lead was formidable, the gap did not appear insurmountable. While the other two had national records second to none – from O’Kelly playing “a man’s part in the Rising of 1916” to Mac Eoin’s time as “active guerrilla leader” during the War of Independence – McCartan’s own was “impeccable”, having been “throughout his life…closely associated with the Irish independence movement.”[3]

For readers scratching their heads at why a broadsheet of genteel respectability was cheerleading for such an unrepentant Fenian, the Irish Times admitted that “this newspaper hardly can be accused of active sympathy with his political ideals.”


We are convinced that, of the three candidates, he is the most suitable. We do not wish to disparage either of his rivals. They are both men who have done the State some service…The fact is, however, that they are both party politicians, for which reason we cannot support them…The electors’ duty is to choose the best man, and ignore all party ties.[4]

Whether the electorate did just that on the big day, the 16th June 1945, is a matter of debate. When the first preference votes were totalled, it was a resounding win for The Powers That Be:

Seán T. O’Kelly – 537,965

Seán Mac Eoin – 335,543

Patrick McCartan – 212,791

Seán T. O’Kelly

An overall majority had been denied to all three contenders, necessitating a sequel count based on the second preference votes, but it would be between O’Kelly and Mac Eoin, the underdog having been edged out. The Irish Times put on a brave face when O’Kelly was announced as the new President of Éire, taking solace in how the Fianna Fáil standard-bearer had not had an easy victory. That the Independent had earned support at all was seen as a win in itself.


We feel that Dr McCartan, whose chances of success from the very beginning were slight, has done a national service by his courageous candidature, which, of course, has been financed out of his own pocket. He had proved that there is still a hard core of intelligent opinion in this country which is prepared to turn a deaf ear to the platform bellowings of the politicians.[5]

Which, again, is debatable.  Either way, this sort of quixotic endeavour was characteristic of McCartan. He had been the dissenter in the system, an eternal maverick, even as far back as January 1916 when, at a meeting of the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), he had voiced doubt about the wisdom of rebellion without first securing popular support.[6]

The Supreme (Committee)

Denis McCullough

Though this caused a stir from a number of those present, Denis McCullough, as Chairman of the Supreme Council, was more understanding. Shushing the critics, to whom any chance of a fight against the British occupation must be seized and without delay, McCullough pointed out that the question was a fair one and the condition McCartan raised entirely in keeping with their Constitution.

On the other hand:

I stated that we had been organising and planning for years for the purpose of a protest in arms, when an opportunity occurred and if ever such an opportunity was to arrive, I didn’t think any better time would present itself in our day.

With both differing strands of thoughts – McCartan’s caution versus hard-line pugnaciousness – appeased, the subsequent discussion was conducted in a more judicious manner, ending in an agreement to carry out such a ‘protest in arms’ upon any of three contingencies:

  • Any mass arrests of Irish Volunteers, particularly their officers.
  • Conscription imposed on Ireland.
  • The premature ending of the Great War, at least on Britain’s part.

A compromise had been reached: commitments made without too much of a commitment. To take the IRB – as well as the Irish Volunteers which the Brotherhood had been infiltrating since their formation in November 1913 – into more of a war footing, a Military Committee was formed, consisting of Tom Clarke, Seán Mac Diarmada, Patrick Pearse, Éamonn Ceannt, Joseph Plunkett and, later, Thomas MacDonagh and James Connolly.

“I think that they were given limited powers of co-option,” McCullough wrote years afterwards, in 1953, to the Bureau of Military History (BMH). “However, I am not certain of these latter details about the Military Committee.”[7]

Denis McCullough in later years

It says much that not even the President of the IRB’s ruling clique was entirely sure about the goings-on of one of its junior bodies. McCartan provided more details in his own reminiscences about the aforementioned gathering, such as Clontarf Town Hall as its location. He also recalled himself saying: “We don’t want any more glorious failures,” which was what presumably provoked the hullabaloo that McCullough described and was enough for one other attendee, Diarmuid Lynch, to later write of McCartan as being against the whole idea of an uprising.

Glorious Failures

“This was not true,” McCartan clarified to readers of his own BMH Statement. It was just “I did not want our people to rush out into a revolution unprepared and without practical hope of success” and was unafraid to say so, even to a roomful of his peers. Not that the others on the IRB Supreme Council had anything stronger to contribute:

I remember Pearse saying in a vague sort of way, “Around Easter would be a good time of the year to start a revolution”. Pearse spoke more like as if he was thinking aloud when he said this, rather than making a definite proposal.

McCartan did concede the possibility that he was misremembering things – such are the perils of recording decades after the event. He was sure, however, that no definite date for insurrection was set at the meeting – he had been there, after all – nor had it been beforehand. Otherwise, “I’m certain Tom Clarke would not have concealed such important news from Denis McCullough and myself.”[8]

Liam Mellows

Time had perhaps allowed him to make a generous appraisal. In the immediate aftermath of the 1916 Rising, however, McCartan may have been of a very different certainty. By mid-1917, he was in New York, on behalf of the underground Irish government, where he met two other revolutionary expatriates, Frank Robbins and Liam Mellows. Easter Week had marked all three, albeit in different ways: Robbins had fought in Dublin as part of the Irish Citizen Army, while Mellows commanded the Irish Volunteers in Co. Galway.

Mellows was supposed to have been McCartan’s superior officer, had McCartan led the Tyrone Volunteers to him as intended, but obviously very little had gone as planned and it was left for the trio to make the best of things with each other in a foreign land. Mellows and McCartan quickly grew close, much to Robbins’ chagrin, for, while he and Mellows were walking together, Robbins asked the other man why he was in a gloomy mood.

Frank Robbins

“If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today, I would never have fired a shot,” Mellows replied. The authority of the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Mellows explained, and its prerogative stolen by the Military Committee in order to launch the Rising under false pretences. Mellows went so far as to call the Committee a junta, an opinion Robbins suspected was more McCartan’s than Mellows’ own. Though Mellows hotly denied this was the case, an unconvinced Robbins insisted on setting straight the record as he saw it: the men of the Military Committee such as Clarke, Pearse and Connolly were heroes who had laid down their lives for Ireland, however much McCartan badmouthed them to justify his own dereliction of duty.

Mellows was thankful when Robbins was done, saying he had helped set his mind at ease. Robbins was troubled all the same; McCartan had been in the United States for less than a fortnight and already he was raising awkward questions about the rights and wrongs of Easter Week.[9]

uuj8dklkc9kqsby4rb_cmf5jwyaeqkp32sonbqwoaqmMaking Sense of Things

(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940)

Q: Were you in touch with them here in Dublin at that time – the three weeks before Easter Week [1916]?

Tom Clarke

A: I could not tell you. I was up in Dublin sometime or other and saw Tom Clarke. He told me to see Pearse. I saw Pearse, and Pearse told me that our function would be to go to a place called Belcoo [Co. Fermanagh]. That there was a plan – there was to be a German landing. If there was a German landing, we were to go to Belcoo and join up with Mellows in Galway. He did not say Mellows. I had to keep the line of the Shannon. He said there might be other instructions later. He did not give me the instructions in case of no German landing and that puzzled us. The idea of that I could not tell you.

Q: For the three weeks before Easter Week, were you doing anything particular?

A: Not that I know of. I came up on Holy Thursday [the 20th April 1916]. I got word on Holy Thursday and I came up to make sure – I think it was Burke, now Dr Burke. I came up on Holy Thursday and saw Tom Clarke. He was enthusiastic about it and he expected a German landing. Going home on the train [to Co. Tyrone], I saw in the evening paper where the Aud was captured and Saturday I sent up my sister and two Miss Owens to make sure: one of them came back on Saturday night and had seen Tom Clarke and he said it was hopeless but we must go on. On Sunday, the other two arrived back with [Eoin] MacNeill’s message [cancelling plans for the Rising]. The Belfast men came down to Tyrone. I did not know they were coming until they arrived.

Irish Volunteers

Q: That was on Sunday [the 23rd April]?

A: Saturday or Sunday. We sent them back on Sunday after getting MacNeill’s message.

Q: It was Friday, probably, you were coming home?

A: Friday, I think it was.

Q: On Saturday, you sent your sister and the Misses Owens to Dublin and they returned?

A: One of them returned on Saturday night by the mail train and the other two on about 2 o’clock on Sunday.

Q: And the Belfast men came on Saturday night?

A: Yes.

Q: On Sunday of Easter Week, the Belfast men went back?

A: Yes.

Q: You remained at home that day?

A: I suppose I went back and pretended to be as innocent as I could.

Q: During Easter Week?

Patrick Pearse

A: Monday, I got word from Pearse. The message was “We started. Carry out your orders”. Matt Kavanagh’s brother brought it to me. That was about dark on Monday evening and I sent word around that we were going to Clogher and got Fr. O’Daly out of his bed at 4 o’clock in the morning. On Tuesday, we had all the fellows mobilised and then our orders were to go to Belcoo. We did not know what we were going to do. That night, Fr. O’Daly and Fr. McNeillus came and then that night I spent telling the rest to go home. We did not know what to do.

Q: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday?

A: Wednesday, I don’t know what I was doing.

Q: For the rest of the week, were you a sort of standing to?

A: Our idea was to start out again as soon as we would get out [sic] bearings and see what we could do. I did not go back to work after that at all. Where I was or what I was doing, I don’t know. Fr. Daly and Father Coyle and myself [and] Fr. McNeillus, we were meeting and discussing business.

Q: For the rest of the week you were waiting then?

A: After Thursday, they began searching every house. I just escaped out of my father’s house that day.[10]

Dealing with the North

James Connolly

If Ulster does not loom large in the memory of the Rising, then, in fairness, it was never intended to be more than an afterthought. This was made plain to McCullough when summoned to a meeting with Pearse and Connolly in Dublin. Despite his presidency of the IRB Supreme Council, as well as rank of commandant over the Belfast Volunteers, McCullough listened passively as Pearse laid out the plan of action.

Once the Rising was decided on, McCullough would receive a coded message a week beforehand. Come zero hour and he was to mobilise his subordinates, armed and equipped accordingly, and march them all the way to Tyrone, join up with the Volunteers there, and then continue towards Galway, where Mellows was to take overall charge. All of which was quite an undertaking, considering how this was to be done on foot, to say nothing of the limited armaments of the Belfast men, for surely the various barracks and garrisons of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) along the way would resist.

RIC barracks, with policemen in front

When McCullough pointed this out:

Connolly got quite cross at this suggestion and almost shouted to me “You will fire no shot in Ulster: you will proceed with all possible speed to join Mellows in Connaught, “and”, he added, “if we win through, we will then deal with Ulster”…I looked at Pearse, to ascertain if he agreed with this and he nodded assent, with some remark like “Yes, that’s an order”. That interview is perfectly clear in my mind, and was exactly as I set it down.[11]

McCartan was given similar instructions by Pearse, who told him, in response to the question of any RIC strongholds facing them: “Don’t waste time dealing with police” – which did not in itself make the problem go away. McCartan at least had the promise of German reinforcements – which McCullough did not, if his memory was as clear as he claimed – as relayed to him by Clarke while staying the night in the latter’s house. McCartan had received word in Tyrone on the morning of Holy Thursday, the 20th April 1916, about a shipment of arms the Aud was bringing for the rebellion, but details were so vague that he went down to Dublin to have them clarified.

The Aud

There was nothing to worry about, Clarke assured him, not with five thousand – at least! – of the Kaiser’s finest on their way. By the time McCartan left for the Friday morning train back to Tyrone, he was as giddy as Clarke – until, that is, he read of the arrest of Roger Casement and the Aud’s capture while sitting in the carriage with his newspaper. While he did not think these twin blows would be enough to derail their enterprise, the mood in the North was apprehensive enough already, even amongst Those In The Know. While passing through Monaghan on the way to see Clarke, McCartan was warned by a priest, Father McPhillips: “Tell them in Dublin not to do anything until the British try to enforce conscription and then the whole country will be behind you.”[12]

Another man of the cloth, Father Eugene Coyle, had attended a gathering of Volunteer officers a day or two earlier, on the Tuesday or Wednesday of Holy Week, in Beragh, Co. Tyrone. McCartan and McCullough were present, along with another Fenian-minded priest, Father O’Daly, and several other insiders. Though Father Coyle was to describe it as a ‘council of war’, the mood was far from belligerent, particularly when the latest missive from Pearse, outlining the joint role of the Tyrone and Belfast contingents, was read out.

Irish Volunteers

If McCullough had been apprehensive upon hearing it the first time, then the others were no less dismayed: the distance to cover was formidable, their men undersupplied and the countryside they were to enter strongly held by the enemy. When one of the attendees, failing to read the room, suggested they begin by blowing up trains carrying British soldiers from Derry to Dublin, the threat to civilian life was deemed too great by the rest. The proposal was quickly dropped.[13]

Effective Organisation

The presence of Fathers Coyle and O’Daly would not have surprised the RIC District Inspector (DI). When writing his report in May 1916 about the disturbances in Tyrone of the month before, DI Conlin noted how “Dr Patrick McCartan, a dangerous IRB suspect” had a way of attracting “considerable clerical support, because he was very astute and had the art of hiding his real sentiments from those to whom he did not wish to reveal them.”[14]

Patrick McCartan

No dissembling would have been necessary with Father Coyle, who had been converted to physical force methods even prior to knowing McCartan. Alarmed at the rise of the Ulster Volunteer Force in his parish of Fintona, Co. Tyrone, Coyle decided it was only just that his congregation should likewise exercise their right to bear arms. Paying for fifty rifles from his own means, which he distributed to the Fintona Volunteer Company, brought him to the attention of McCartan, then the medical officer of the Gorteen Dispensary District.

“Dr McCartan and I became great friends,” Father Coyle told the BMH. “I had great admiration for the work he was doing in organising the Volunteers and the IRB all over the north of Ireland.”

The respect went both ways, with McCartan allowing his priestly friend to sit in on IRB conclaves, where he also made the acquaintance of McCullough and Father O’Daly. Coyle’s religious scruples held him off from taking the Fenian oath – secret societies being frowned upon by the Church – though not from accompanying McCartan in the latter’s car to Dublin and driving back with guns purchased out of McCartan’s medical salary. Father Coyle’s martial philosophy was more reactive than proactive – “I believed that defensive military preparation by our people was the keystone of our national wellbeing,” as he put it – while his friend’s was willing to risk an outright insurrection – when the time was right, that is.

1871 Mauser Rifle, of the type commonly used by the Irish Volunteers

In McCartan’s view, the time was most certainly not right, so he told Father Coyle sometime in early 1916. He was not alone in thinking so, as he relayed to his priestly confidant about an IRB summit in Dublin from which he had just returned:

A small minority of the delegates expressed the opinion that the Rising should be postponed until the country was better organised, as in many counties there did not exist any organisation whatever…The position in the north then was that in all areas except East and South Tyrone and Belfast City there was no organisation. In the south, with the exception of Dublin, Galway South and Wexford, there was little evidence of any effective organisation.

Nonetheless, the Rising was set to go ahead, much to McCartan’s frustration. His IRB co-conspirators could not seem to think in terms outside of Dublin’s, he complained. If it was fine for the big city, it was the same for everywhere else, went the attitude.[15]

Both he and Father Coyle knew better. When McCartan was singled out for his alleged culpability in the subsequent debacle, Coyle hastened to set the record straight or at least place it in context. “Why specially condemn him for inactivity when in areas like Cork and Kerry with friendly populations, with better organisation, more men, more arms and better equipment, no action took place,” he asked, defending the honour both of his friend and the North’s.[16]

ed94-whofearstospeak1-nli-who-fears-to-speak-of-easter-week-national-lib-irelandContradictory Conflictions

And yet, perhaps there is more than a hint of hindsight in such remarks, composed decades afterwards when the Rising might have appeared doomed from the start. Other sources, written mere weeks after the venture, present McCartan in a much more confident, even cocksure light. A letter of his in early June described how he had, on the Easter Tuesday of the 25th April, proposed to a RIC sergeant that he and his colleagues:

…would get their jobs under the new government if they did not actively oppose us. And I advised him to pretend to do his duty but not be too officious and to pass the word to those whom he could.

McCartan obviously was envisioning himself as someone with a say in this new state of affairs. The sergeant instead reported this seditious offer to his superiors, leaving McCartan open to charges under the Defence of the Realm Act and with no choice but to go into hiding:

Of course I was an ass for saying anything to him but at the time I was certain we would have a walk-over as I thought the Germans were here.

Evidently, news of the Aud’s capture had not deterred McCartan from believing in the story Clarke had spun for him about overseas reinforcements. While he knew all too well now that this had been a forlorn hope, at the time: “I thought the hour for discretion had passed.”[17]

Irish Volunteers

This was not necessarily post factum bravado on McCartan’s part. The RIC report of DI Conlin, written on the 23rd May 1916 to explain to his employers in Dublin Castle how Tyrone had fared, made a point of identifying McCartan as “not only a local leader in the rebellion movement but…was a leader in the higher councils of the Dublin rebels.” Such as the trust bestowed in him that “he had control of large funds from America for propaganda work…I have evidence of large payments made by him to such men as T.C. Clarke of Dublin, who has since been shot, and to Professor MacNeill and others connected with the Sinn Fein movement.”[18]

And McCartan led not just from the shadows. Although the authorities had him under enough surveillance to record his visit to Dublin on Good Friday, as well as observing him and several others in Tyrone “making final preparations for the rising,” Conlin mistakenly believed Easter Wednesday, the 26th April, to be the set date for action. Even when news reached the RIC in Omagh of the fighting in the capital, the warning was considered insufficiently clear for the police to do much more than stand by. Conlin seemed unaware of the divisions within the rebel leadership, and the contradictory orders about whether or not the Rising was to go ahead, attributing instead its failure in Tyrone to the “special zeal, energy, tact and wholehearted devotion to duty” of the RIC.

RIC constables

Self-congratulation aside, the District Inspector was correct in his report that the majority of Tyrone Volunteers simply decided to sit things out:

When the Sinn Feiners assembled at Eskerboy on night of 26 ult. they numbered only 105 all told. The question of attacking the police barracks at Carrickmore was put to a vote, and there was a majority of 3 or 4 against the attack because the forces were not sufficiently strong.


Dr McCartan and the more violent of his supporters fought hard to lead the attack. He failed to carry his point but he had not yet given up hope of raising the republican flag in Tyrone, and he expressed himself to that effect and promised that a sufficiently large force would be in readiness in a day or two.

McCartan never got the chance. On the next day, continued Conlin, three hundred British soldiers drove into Carrickmore and aided the RIC in raiding:

…the home of Dr McCartan’s father where the meeting had been held the previous night, and seized several thousand rounds of ammunition and 15 or 20 automatic revolvers and cartridges and other equipment. This military demonstration and the seizure of the ammunition put the finishing touches on the rebellion in Tyrone.[19]

That McCartan was able to take his two revolvers with him, while fleeing his father’s house in Eskerboy just in time to avoid arrest, was a small victory, though it did little to mitigate the loss of the rest of the arsenal. The Tyrone Volunteers had been in two minds about rebellion, or at least about putting the principal into practice, but now the choice had been made for them, and there was nothing else to be done except lie low and hope the military and police parties would pass them by.[20]

A British soldier hunting for rebels, post-Rising

If the Volunteers had really been debating the merits of attacking Carrickmore RIC Barracks, then this meant a departure from Pearse’s instructions to do nothing against the police in Tyrone. As Seán Corr remembered it, however, the question had been no more ambitious than whether to seize explosives from Carrickmore quarry, which ended in the decision not to. Other insider accounts give the impression of an army that had already lost its spirit, going through the motions while waiting for it all to end one way or another.[21]

“When I met [McCartan on Monday evening] he seemed to have had a bad time and showed the effects of it,” recalled Jim Tomney. Tyrone had by then suffered its sole casualty of Easter Week: McCartan’s car, left a burning wreck after soldiers paid a call to his house. With the promise of worse to come, now that the authorities were on the alert, a shaken McCartan told Tomney “that he was not in favour of doing anything further.”[22]

Flight or Fight

(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940 – continued)

Q: You went on the run?

A: I was on the run from that on [until] about February or January of 1917. It was the end of January because I was arrested on the 28th February.

Q: The 21st or the 22nd February?

A: Sometime like that.

Q: You were deported then?

A: I was in Oxford and Fairford, and we came back for Joe McGuinness’ election.

Sinn Féin activists in the South Longford by-election, 1917

Q: You escaped from there in May 1917?

A: Yes.

Q: You assisted at the election?

A: Yes.

Q: It was at that time that you were ordered to go by the Provisional Government?

A: We called it a Provisional Government. It was really the Supreme Council of the IRB.

Q: You could not get a boat to Russia – you were ordered to go to the USA and make your contact there?

A: That is right.

Q: About what time did you leave for there? In June?

A: Yes. The prisoners got out of Lewis [sic] Jail about June. Three weeks before that. It was after McGuinness’ election. I went to London and gave a statement to the Russian – to a secret agent. Then I went to Liverpool looking for a boat and there I saw about the prisoners getting out and crossed over in the boat with them here. I got a statement signed by the officers which was presented to President Wilson.

Q: De Valera signed the statement?

A: Yes and MacNeill and all the officers.

Éamon de Valera, captured after the Rising

Q: In addition to the Supreme Council of the IRB, you had now the sanction of all the released prisoners?

A: Yes, all the released prisoners really.

Q: With that statement, you left?

A: Yes. I sailed on the Baltic as a seaman. I forgot the exact date. Whatever date they got out, it was on the following Wednesday.

Q: You went to America?

A: Yes.[23]

Coming to America

John Devoy

For Frank Robbins, McCartan’s arrival in New York was the start of one headache after another. He and Mellows made the acquaintance of the newest entrant in the Gaelic American newspaper offices, the base of operations of John Devoy, the hoary old Fenian legend. McCartan had only just stepped foot on American soil and already he was at the centre of a crisis.

He had brought with him a document, stating the case of Irish freedom, and addressed to President Woodrow Wilson and the United States Congress. The twenty-six signatures at the end, all of which belonged to Volunteer officers who were newly released from prison, made this as official a statement as could be made by the independence movement. Elaborate preparations had gone into its making: written in indelible ink on starched linen, which had then been washed into a state pliable enough to be sewn onto the inside of McCartan’s waistcoat.

The starched linen address to the

There was just one problem, as McCartan revealed to the others in the room: he had left his waistcoat, and the document within, on the ship.

Whether this was something important or not, McCartan could not seem to decide, at least in front of Devoy, Mellows and Robbins. Fed up with the dithering, Robbins finally undertook to retrieve the document himself. Knowing McCartan had spent his Atlantic crossing on the forecastle of the Baltic ocean liner, Robbins would sneak on board, find the rogue item of clothing and bring it and the contents back. McCartan appeared relieved at hearing this and followed Robbins and Mellows to the harbour of the West Side, where the Baltic was docked. Robbins left the other two on a street corner and, assuming the confident air of a man who had every right to be where he was, tried walking past the guard-sheds of the dock.

Unfortunately, the watchman on duty was not so trusting as to let Robbins pass without a challenge. Nor was he swayed by Robbin’s sob-story of being a down-on-his-luck sailor who had missed his previous ship and was desperate to find employment on another. No pass, no entry, the sentry insisted, forcing Robbins to return, defeated, to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.

New York waterfront, early 1900s

Though the story was to have a happy resolution, Robbins found the whole thing more than a little frustrating:

I do not know how the document was brought ashore eventually but there is a point of view held that it was through the influence of Clann na Gael [the Irish-American organisation headed by Devoy] that this problem was overcome. Dr McCartan in his book “With De Valera in America” says he took it ashore with him on the Sunday, the day the ship docked. Yet on Monday he was deploring its loss, and was party to, and in agreement with my effort to get it by boarding the ship. However, I have given the facts as known to me.[24]

“Frank, McCartan will never make a revolutionist,” Devoy told Robbins one day. “He can never make up his mind about anything which is very important, and I attribute this to being an inveterate smoker.”[25]

Regardless of suspect tobacco habits, Robbins was stuck with McCartan for the meantime. Devoy put his own doubts aside to add the newcomer to the circuit of speakers in talks organised by Clan na Gael, in which McCartan performed to packed houses, sharing the stage with other activists such as Mellows, Sidney Czira (née Gifford) and Hannah Sheehy-Skellington, while Robbins sang suitably rousing songs like Call of Erin, Wrap the Green Flag Round Me and Armed for the Battle.[26]

a7fbe6fe2e7e4ef1a5635985d19d9e59_f283But patriotic productions were only part of the agenda for McCartan and his stateside peers. Whatever its faults as a military operation, the 1916 Rising had at least set the Irish revolution in motion, and McCartan, whatever his private views about the Easter Week of the year before, was eager to play his part. When Czira told him that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had bade farewell to some of her compatriots from the German Embassy who were homebound, given the state of war that now existed between their country and America, McCartan was surprised – and intrigued.

What routes were they using, he wanted to know. McCartan returned to Czira’s flat in Beekman Place, New York, the next morning, at a notably early hour. Mellows was with him, the two men being eager to learn if they could take the same ships as the departing diplomatic staff for business of their own in Germany.[27]

Caught in the Act

(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940 – continued)

Q: When were you arrested in Canada?

A: That was in October 1917. The same year.

Q: You spent ten weeks in jail there?

A: Yes.

Q: You were arrested there attempting to go to Germany for special explosives?

A: That is right.

Q: At that time, you were working specially for this group of officers?

A: I don’t know who was in charge then but the question was whether these could be used or not. First, I was to go to Liverpool to organise for the use of them and then it was decided for two to go to Germany. Mellows and I were to go. Mellows was to go first and I was to stay behind representing and then it was necessary to make a second trip.

Patrick McCartan (left) and Liam Mellows (right)

Q: You were working at any rate for some GHQ and you were working still on the instructions received from [Éamon] de Valera and the others officers there?

A: That is right.

Q: Did you return then to New York after that?

A: They sent me back to New York for trial. I went on a seaman’s passport under an assumed name.

Q: How long were you held?

A: They kept me in the Custom House in the Secret Service place for a couple of days.

Q: You were released then?

A: I was brought into court and got out on bail, first trial.[28]

Our Gallant Allies in Europe

An American-German-Irish alliance had long been identified as the ideal leverage by both revolutionaries and their opponents. While discussing the history of resistance to British rule in Tyone, dating all the way back to the O’Neills in the 16th century, DI Conlin, noted, in his report of May 1916, how:

…this appealed to the sentiment of extremists amongst the Irish in America, and brought unlimited funds through the Clan na Gael, which have doubtless been augmented since the outbreak of war by subscriptions from German-Americans to foster rebellion in Tyrone.[29]

And at the centre of this Transatlantic-Continental conspiracy was, of course, McCartan:

…delegated to Tyrone, his native county by the American Clan na Gael to spread the Sinn Fein and revolutionary movement. His private papers, bank accounts, etc., which I have seized, prove this conclusively.[30]

Even after the absence of their ‘gallant allies’ when it mattered on Easter Week, McCartan stayed true to his Teutonophilia. “Hurrah! Hurrah!! Hurr-ah!!! Great news in yesterday’s papers!” he wrote excitedly, on the 4th June 1916, about the naval news on the Battle of Jutland. “Brittania who rules the waves admits the loss of fourteen warships and others missing. Our cause is not therefore hopeless.” It was time, thus, to renew strategic ties: “We want a representative in Berlin to take [Roger] Casement’s place, and he should get there quickly.”

Roger Casement

In the event of no takers, he offered himself for this diplomatic role:

…for I am convinced it is the proper thing to do. If an Irishman arrived there, “to put conditions in Ireland before the German Government” and publish the fact, it would serve both Germany and Ireland. Even though it were impossible for an expedition to come here it would frighten John Bull into giving better terms to Ireland in the coming or promised reform. It would also keep up, or help at least to keep, the enthusiasm of the Irish in America for Germany and perhaps influence the presidential election and Wilson. If the expedition came here it would prepare the mind of the people for it and give them heart.[31]

Sidney Czira

In other words: whatever happened, an envoy in Berlin could only benefit their cause. Almost a year later, McCartan saw the opportunity to put his theory to the test. Czira answered his request by putting him and Mellows in touch with Frau Haslau and allowed the budding cell the use of her flat for meetings, though she kept her own involvement to a minimum, save counsel. When Haslau asked if she could include a fellow worker in German propaganda, a Dr von Recklinghausen, Czira advised her and Mellows against this, fearing the doctor was too high-profile.

Nonetheless, she did not forbid it and her warning went unheeded, as did her urging of McCartan not to tell Devoy what they were doing. She regarded the Clan na Gael head as a petty tyrant, while Devoy resented the Young Turks who were bucking his authority. McCartan attempted to straddle both horses, continuing to associate with Czira and her allies, while arguing to them that it was unfair to leave the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.[32]

Donal OHannigan
Donal O’Hannigan

Besides, Devoy had German contacts of his own, exchanging word via a cablegram between Europe and New York, and was sufficiently informed to host a gathering in the Astoria Hotel with McCartan, Mellows and Donal O’Hannigan, the commander of the Louth Volunteers during Easter Week. Devoy assigned to the others their destinations: O’Hannigan was to return to Ireland and await contact with German operatives, with McCartan and Mellows making their way to Germany.

Everything seemed to be laid out smoothly – except for how, as McCartan, Mellows and O’Hannigan left the Astoria, they were tailed by four strangers who O’Hannigan assumed to be police detectives. Though the trio were able to give their shadowy escorts the slip, it was clear that they had not been as discreet as they should, McCartan especially.[33]

The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York

As if Dr von Recklinghausen was not inconspicuous enough, McCartan was warned by Devoy not to be paying calls to a certain German woman – Haslau, presumably – who was already known to the American authorities. McCartan continued doing so anyway. Another blunder was when he and Mellows were at the New York Shipping Board for their seamen’s papers in preparation for their Atlantic crossing. As befitting men on a secret mission, both gave false names and provided forged birth certificates as ‘proof’ but, when McCartan was asked by the official at the desk to name his previous ship of employment, he answered incorrectly, as he did immediately after about whether he had been a sailor or foreman before. Though the official made no comment, anyone checking McCartan’s statements against the Board books could tell that something was amiss.

While McCartan was able to secure the necessary paperwork, according to Robbins:

Mellows also informed me that McCartan, who was employed as a cook, was ordered to report daily at 7 am to the ship while she was in port in New York. This he failed to do, on many occasions turning up as late as ten o’clock.[34]

Between this and that, it is little wonder , when the time to move finally came, that their mission was halted in its tracks, like Easter Week all over again. McCartan had set off in October 1917, stopping off in Halifax, Canada, where he was detained by the authorities. A week later, Mellows too was arrested, still in New York, with his fraudulent seaman’s passport on him. Neither would be leaving American shores quite yet, though McCartan at least had the distinction publicly bestowed on him by the media as the “First Ambassador to the Irish Republic.”[35]

Envoy Work

(From Patrick McCartan’s interview with the Pension Advisory Committee on 28th July 1940 – continued)

Q: During ’18, you were still there in America?

A: Yes, I was still there.

Q: Were you acting as an envoy there?

A: Yes. That was the best period of work I had, because de Valera came in 1919 and Harry Boland, of course, they took the…

Éamon de Valera and Harry Boland in their tour of the United States

Q: Were you officially working there as envoy right up to the time they came?

A: Yes. I gave statements to the State Department, all that kind of thing. The 1918 Election was here, I sent a note to the Legation in Washington [that] Ireland was separated from the British Empire.

Q: That would be after they proclaimed the Republican Government here in 1918?

A: I did not wait for the Proclamation. As soon as the result of the Election [came in], I acted.

Q: You had been acting as envoy prior to that?

A: Yes.

Q: Full time?

A: Yes. I delivered a statement up to [President Woodrow] Wilson or his secretary any time I got one. Then we protested about the Conscription of Irish Nationalists also, and the Conscription here in Ireland, [we] sent it to the State Department.

Q: Before de Valera came over, were you officially appointed by the Republican Government at that time?

A: When Harry Boland came, he gave me the official note appointing me by de Valera as head of the elected Government – he called it, he signed it – of Ireland.

The Old Country meets the New World: (left to right) Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, Éamon De Valera, John Devoy (seated), Patrick McCartan and Diarmuid Lynch at the Waldor-Astoria Hotel in New York, June 1919

Q: From that on, you were acting in that capacity?

A: Until I went to Russia in 1920. December 29th, 1920, I think, I sailed for Gottenburg.

Q: Who sent you to Russia?

A: De Valera. He gave me one of those printed documents with instructions. It was in Irish and French.

Q: You arrived there?

A: 14th February [1921].

Q: You returned to Ireland what time?

A: I left Moscow, February, March, April, May, June, 14th June ‘21. I was exactly there four months. Then, I think, I spent about a month or so in Berlin, as John T. Ryan.

Q: You were full time there?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you return here?

A: I returned here then during the Truce, I could not give you the exact date, I have not the old passport.

Q: You were there up to the time of the Truce?

A: I was. As a matter of fact, the Truce took place when I was in Germany.[36]

Eastern Promises

Russia had been McCartan’s original intended destination, back in mid-1917. After his arrest and a spell of deportation in England, he had returned to Ireland, participating in whatever opportunities came his way such as canvassing in the South Longford by-election, but otherwise at a loss of what to do. In the wake of Easter Week, the IRB Supreme Council had been reformed without him, though it is unclear if this was an act of exclusion or his own decision.

Kevin O’Shiel

If the former, then debarment did not stop the Secretary of the Supreme Council, Seamus O’Doherty, from sharing news with him or asking for advice; if the latter, McCartan still itched to contribute to the cause. The O’Doherty family house in Dublin provided a venue for him and like-minded souls to drop in and chat about the state of affairs, and it was during one of these symposiums, between McCartan, O’Doherty and Kevin O’Shiel – another Tyrone-born activist – that the notion of sending an emissary to the Soviet Union on behalf of the Irish Republic was born. O’Doherty forwarded this suggestion at the next Supreme Council conclave, which confirmed it, at least according to McCartan’s account, which makes it all sound very much an ad hoc process, as was the subsequent change of plans to send McCartan to America instead, based on how catching a boat there seemed easier.[37]

Such extemporaneous spirit continued when McCartan finally made contact with the Soviet Union, through the Russian Mission in the city of Reval (modern day Tallinn), Estonia, which he reached on the 6th February 1921. He had hoped to mitigate the worst of this impromptu as far back as May 1920, when the idea of a Soviet outreach was next mooted. “As far as I am personally concerned I’ll go only on condition that I get plenary powers and that I shall have absolute authority no matter who is sent to make final decision in case of disagreement,” he wrote from New York. “This may seem at first sight an extraordinary demand but it is the only satisfactory course.”

Tallinn, Estonia

Otherwise, standing as a warning was the historical example of Benjamin Franklin during his ambassadorial tenure in Paris – who “had no end of wrangles with his colleagues and in the end had to take the bull by the horns and act as his own judgement dictated” – and, more recently and closer to home, Roger Casement, whose lack of full authority “left him to an extent powerless and even suspected.” McCartan had no intention of letting history repeat itself where he was concerned – but, when the time came, history appeared to have had the last laugh.[38]

Upon meeting Maxim Litvinoff in the Russian Mission in Reval, on the 9th February, his Russian counterpart:

He seemed at first to study me as a sort of curiosity and asked me if I had any programme or plan to submit. As the Cabinet, so far as I know, never sent any recommendations nor suggestions after the receipt of the proposed Treaty and as President De Valera did not give me any specific instructions I was evasive and said that it was considered better to discuss proposals with them as we could only be expected to view the situation largely from an Irish point of view but we desired that whatever agreement, if any, we might make would be to our mutual advantage.

Maxim Litvinoff

Unfortunately, Litvinoff saw through this prevarication: “He openly expressed disappointment and intimated that it was folly for me to proceed if I had no plan to submit.” At least Litvinoff was willing to discuss the situation with McCartan, specifically whether the Soviet Union would recognise the Irish Republic. The chief sticking point was the treaty being negotiated with Britain, which would react poorly to a separate deal with a country it considered part of its domain. Still, McCartan suspected Litvinoff was not completely averse to tweaking the lion’s tale; when he asked the Russian if he trusted Britain, Litvinoff answered with a sardonic laugh.

Despite the earlier brusqueness, the meeting ended on a positive note: McCartan could proceed to Moscow and meet Santeri Nuratova, Assistant Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.[39]

Mission to Moscow

Santeri Nuorteva

Arriving in Moscow on the 14th February, McCartan made a point of being at the Foreign Office exactly on time. He did not have long to wait before his interview with Nuratova, who repeated Litvinoff’s line that the Anglo-Russian treaty-in-the-making was the hurdle to an Irish-Russian one, and the Soviet Union wanted the former very keenly, certainly more than the latter. When McCartan speculated on the chances of these talks with Britain falling through, Nuratova set him straight: “I may tell you confidentially they will not break down for we want the agreement. It is essential for us.”

The Irishman was again left in suspense as Nuratova said he would have to wait until the next day to learn if he could meet the next rung on the Soviet Foreign Affairs ladder: Georgy Tchitcherin, Secretary of State. When McCartan received the affirmative by a telephone-call to his hotel, he was once again punctual for the appointment. Tchitcherin was not, being delayed – so McCartan was told – by a few minutes. Which was not an auspicious start, nor was the opening awkwardness and confusion when the two men met:

Mr. Tchecherin appeared an extremely gentle sort of man, very polite and a trifle nervous. Both of us seemed embarrassed as to how to start. He mumbled rather than asked whom and what I represented. I submitted my credentials from President de Valera and he seemed to read and re-read them.

They were dated Dublin December 15. He asked if I came from Dublin and then asked how I came from New York while the credentials were signed in Dublin. He wanted to know if our Government were in New York. I explained all this. Then he suddenly asked me what I wanted and I said recognition by the Soviet Government and a discussion of co-operation which might be of advantage to both.

Georgy Tchitcherin

When Tchecherin queried Ireland’s sovereignty, considering how the country was still occupied by its neighbour, McCartan had his responses ready: did George Washington not lack full control of the American Colonies when receiving recognition from France against the same enemy as now? Had the Allies not acknowledged in Paris an independent government for Bohemia while it lay under the Austrian thumb? No other government admitted the Soviet Union as one of its own, even though it was accepted as a fact by the peoples of the world. Ireland, likewise, was denied official approval, even while the government McCartan represented ruled Ireland more truly than the British military did.

This question of recognition led to another: Tchecherin had read in the papers about the possibility of President de Valera accepting something less than a Republic, like Dominion Home Rule. Was this true?

Not at all, assured McCartan:

If we said we would accept Dominion Home Rule we would give away our whole case for nothing. Surely he could himself see that it would be very poor statesmanship for President de Valera to say he would accept Dominion Home Rule. There was one real danger of a compromise but it was one with which we were not likely to be confronted. If the British Government threw a genuine measure of Dominion Home Rule at us and virtually said ‘take it or leave it’ we might be compelled to operate it as many of our people might consider it more than they had ever hoped for in their lifetime. In such a case we would have to accept it or run the risk of splitting the people again into fractions.

But, as McCartan had said and what he stressed, this sort of make-or-break offer was very unlikely to happen. As the interview drew to a close, Tchecherin asked what was the likeliest outcome to expect.

“An Irish Republic or a land in ashes,” McCartan replied, “for it is going to be a fight to a finish.”[40]

A Fight to the Finish or Finishing the Fight?

Joseph McGarrity, a key ally of McCartan’s in America

There is no reason to think McCartan did not mean those words; indeed, one handshake made under the table – which did not reach the official memorandum – was for the Soviet Union to smuggle 50,000 rifles to Ireland. McCartan and Harry Boland were to handle the logistics, with the help of their Irish-American contacts and the Irish Overseas Shipping and Trading Company acting in Dublin as the front for surreptitious imports. As with other similarly grand guns-running plans during the War of Independence, this one fell through when the American authorities caught wind of it at their end and alerted their British counterparts. At least McCartan left Russia with his public mission a success, as an accord had been struck that made the Irish Republic the first nation to recognise the Communist state.[41]

Which was ironic, considering how its ideology would be as welcome as the Bubonic Plague in a staunchly Catholic Ireland – but one thing at a time. The possibility that McCartan had assured Tchecherin was impossible – that Britain would offer Ireland something less than a Republic – had just become a reality with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921. McCartan returned to Dublin to attend the Dáil debates as the TD of the Leix-Offaly constituency, a seat he had won uncontested seven months ago in the General Election of May 1921. Such was Sinn Féin’s dominance that its candidates had not even needed to be in the country. But now this sort of absentee representation was no longer permissible. It was time to stand in the Dáil and be literally counted – for the Treaty or not?

A doleful-looking Dan MacCarthy

Where McCartan stood on that question was one Dan MacCarthy dearly wished to have answered. As Whip for his faction, it was McCarthy’s duty to rally the other pro-Treaty TDs; a stressful job, as evidenced by how intent he seemed, during one parliamentary session, at poking holes in his cushioned seat with a pen-knife. When his neighbour, Ernest Blythe, asked about the matter, McCarthy replied that McCartan, who he had been led to believe shared their support of the Treaty, had asked to be put down on the list of opposition speakers.[42]

Messages remained mixed in the lead-up to McCartan’s allocated timeslot. When President de Valera tried stopping the Treaty dead in its tracks on the opening day of Dáil debates, the 14th December 1921, by questioning the credentials of the Irish Plenipotentiaries in negotiating the agreement in the first place, McCartan spoke up in their defence.

Michael Collins leaving 10 Downing Street during negotiations, 1921

“I do not think the question arises,” he said. “The Delegates had powers to conclude a Treaty. They had plenary powers and it is for us now to accept or reject what they had agreed to.” Perhaps he was remembering his own struggles to have his right to represent taken seriously in Moscow. On the other hand, six days later, on the 20th December, McCartan announced himself “as one who stands uncompromisingly for an Irish Republic.”[43]

Burying the Republic

Later that day, his turn came to rise and explain exactly where he stood. Bitter and vehement were his opening words: “It appears to me, since the opening of the Session, there has been a deliberate attempt to shirk responsibility for the way we find ourselves today,” he said, pointing a metaphorical finger of accusation:

The people elected us to direct the destinies of Ireland at this period and we elected a Cabinet. I submit it was their duty in all conditions, in all circumstances, to lead us, the rank and file, in the best possible way. I submit that they have failed.

The Plenipotentiaries were not to blame for the present disarray. That there was division at all showed the rot and how it had started from the top:

From when representatives had earlier gone to London to ascertain if Irish aspirations could be reconciled with the British Commonwealth.

From when Irishmen in the Dáil announced themselves to be not doctrinaire Republicans.

From when the Cabinet had failed to resign en masse rather than bring them all to this current point.

Because of this, and because of that, the Republic was dead. It had been sold. Partition acquiesced to with the willingness to grant Ulster exclusivity, and all this before the Plenipotentiaries had set foot inside Downing Street. This was not what men had died for. This was not what Tom Clarke died for. Clarke was the noblest of them all, a man McCartan had known intimately, and Clarke had not died for the Treaty or for Document No. 2 or External Association with Britain or Internal Association or anything of the sort. And yet that was the situation they were facing, a situation some preferred to turn away from, nursing wounded pride and resentment rather than to confront like statesmen.

Dáil representatives debating the Treaty

Others present tried to shout him down, calling out ‘No! No!’, but McCartan would have his due:

You can contradict me when you rise to speak. I submit it is dead, and that the men who signed the document opposite Englishmen wrote its epitaph in London. It is dead naturally because it depended on the unity of the Irish people. It depended on the unity of the Cabinet. It depended on the unity of this Dáil. Are we united today as a Cabinet, united as a Dáil? United? Can you go forth after the decision is taken and say the people of Ireland are united? Can you even say the Irish Republican Army is united? You may say it is. I have my doubts. I think any thinking man has his doubts.

But, if not the Treaty, then what was the alternative? What choice could be made?

I as a Republican will not endorse it, but I will not vote for chaos. Then I will not vote against it. To vote for it I would be violating my oath which I took to the Republic, that I took to the Irish Republican Brotherhood. I never intend violating these oaths. I took these oaths seriously and I mean to keep them as far as I can. I believe just the same rejection means war. I believe every man who votes for it should be prepared for war. But you are going into war under different conditions to what we had when we had a united Cabinet, a united Dáil and a united people.[44]

The choice, then, was no choice at all in a literal sense: McCartan would neither vote for nor against the Treaty. Constituents in Edenderry, Co. Offaly, were sufficiently alarmed by their representative’s doleful words and finicky neutrality to wire him a petition, “signed by all classes and creeds”, urging him to consider his own words and get behind the Treaty, lest his withheld support amounted to its repudiation and the chaos that would surely follow.[45]

Patrick McCartan

In the end, McCartan did indeed vote for the Treaty, his name – in its Irish equivalent of Pádraig Mac Artáin – appearing thirty-third on the list of sixty-four representatives in favour, against the fifty-seven naysayers. Which, Blythe believed, was McCartan’s intent from the start, his rejectionist stance which had so worried MacCarthy being an artful ploy to make the reveal of his true commitment all the more dramatic.[46]

Maybe. One could never take anything about McCartan for granted, that most quicksilver of men during this period of flux. Not for nothing did District Inspector Conlin bestow on him the highest accolade as a conspirator and most questionable trait for a co-conspirator: “Very astute and had the art of hiding his real sentiments from those to whom he did not wish to reveal them.”[47]


[1] Martin, F.X., ‘The McCartan Documents, 1916’, Clogher Record, Volume 6, No. 1 (Clogher Historical Society, 1966), p. 51

[2] Irish Times, 19/05/1945

[3] Ibid, 07/06/1945

[4] Ibid, 12/06/1945

[5] Ibid, 19/06/1945

[6] McCullough, Denis (BMH / WS 915), pp. 13-4

[7] Ibid, p. 14

[8] McCartan, Patrick (BMH / WS 766), pp. 40, 43-7

[9] Robbins, Frank (BMH / WS 585), pp. 118-9

[10] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘McCartan, Patrick’ (MSP34REF56175), pp. 24-5

[11] McCullough, p. 16

[12] McCartan, pp. 49-51

[13] Coyle, Eugene (BMH / WS 325), pp. 5-6

[14] Martin, pp. 56, 58

[15] Coyle, pp. 2-5

[16] Ibid, p. 7

[17] Martin, p. 52

[18] Martin, p. 57

[19] Ibid, pp. 61-4

[20] McCartan, p. 54

[21] Corr, Seán (BMH / WS 145), p. 189

[22] Tomney, James (BMH / WS 169), p. 7

[23] ‘McCartan’ (MSP34REF56175), p. 25

[24] Robbins, pp. 116-8

[25] Ibid, pp. 139-40

[26] Ibid, p. 134

[27] Czira, Sidney (BMH / WS 909), pp. 41-2

[28] ‘McCartan’ (MSP34REF56175), pp. 25-6

[29] Martin, p. 57

[30] Ibid, p. 56

[31] Ibid, pp. 44-5

[32] Czira, pp. 42-3

[33] O’Hannigan, Donal (BMH / WS 161), pp. 32-3

[34] Robbins, pp. 138-9

[35] Irish Times, 03/11/1917

[36] ‘McCartan’ (MSP34REF56175), p. 26

[37] McCartan, pp. 64-5, 67

[38] Ibid, p. 75 ; ‘Extract from a Memorandum by Patrick McCartan on mission to Russia and on draft Russo-Irish Treaty’, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume 1, 1920, Doc. No. 33 (Accessed 11th February 1921)

[39]Memorandum by Patrick McCartan on hopes of recognition of the Irish Republic from the USSR’, Documents on Irish Foreign Policy, Volume 1, 1921, Doc. No. 88 (Accessed 11th February 1921)

[40] Ibid

[41] Moylett, Patrick (BMH / WS 767), pp. 21-2

[42] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 141

[43]Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 12th February 2021) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, pp. 13-4, 75

[44] Ibid, pp. 79-81

[45] Irish Times, 28/12/1921

[46] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland’, p. 345 ; Blythe, p. 141

[47] Martin, p. 58



Irish Times

 Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Corr, Seán, WS 145

Coyle, Eugene, WS 325

Czira, Sidney, WS 909

McCartan, Patrick, WS 766

McCullough, Denis, WS 915

Moylett, Patrick, WS 767

O’Hannigan, Donal, WS 161

Robbins, Frank, WS 585

Tomney, James, WS 169


Martin, F.X., ‘The McCartan Documents, 1916’, Clogher Record, Volume 6, No. 1 (Clogher Historical Society, 1966)

Online Resources

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

Documents on Irish Foreign Policy

Military Service Pensions Collection


Hanging by a Thread: Seán Mac Eoin and the Trial of his Life, 1921 (Part II)

A continuation of: Caught by a Whisker: Seán Mac Eoin and the Fight for his Life, 1921 (Part I)

The full details about what happened at Mountjoy Prison are very difficult to get. However, piecing together the scraps of information which people in the neighbourhood and people in touch with the prison staff are able to provide, it is possible to reconstruct a story of the sensational occurrence.

(Sunday Independent, 15th May 1921)

A Rescue Launched

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) now had possession of the coveted transport. John McCaffrey and four other Volunteers climbed on board the armoured car and drove down the North Circular Road to pick up Joe Leonard and Emmet Dalton. As seasoned combatants, the pair would be spearheading the rescue of Seán Mac Eoin under the guise of British officers who had come to Mountjoy to transfer the prisoner. It was a daring performance, one which both men were suited for in their own separate ways, as Leonard described.

British Army armoured car in Dublin

Other than the khaki uniforms they wore and the military vehicle bringing them:

Emmet, having served as an officer in the British Army knew how to serve a prisoner removal order to the authorities, and I had served six months in Mountjoy Prison and had stood-to for the escape of twenty prisoners over the wall [in March 1919], and so knew the prison fairly well, and besides Emmet’s second uniform fitted me to perfection.

If Mac Eoin was in the Governor’s office as intended, then his liberators would be spared having to search for him. The final touch to the script was the IRA party who would present themselves at the prison entrance as soon as the metal-plated motor was inside with the intent of bamboozling the sentries into reopening.

Emmet Dalton

Dalton waved some official-looking papers at the iron gates, which yawned opened to receive them, closing behind with a clang. Two more gates parted in succession before the car, whose driver manoeuvred in a wide turn once across the inside yard until it was facing back to where it came. With a small advance, the car was ‘carelessly’ blocking the inner two gates from closing, leaving only the front one shut.

If onlookers thought this unusual or suspicious, they made no protest as two men in British uniforms strode over to the Governor’s office in a perfect imitation of Important People With Important Things To Do. All was proceeding like clockwork…until, instead of Governor Charles Munro alone at his desk, Leonard and Dalton found him with seven of his aides and the door closing behind them. Was this a trap? Had they been rumbled?

Except Munro was polite enough:

…receiving us very nicely until he mentioned that he must ring up the Castle for confirmation of the order to remove McKeon [alternative spelling]. I sprang up for the telephone and smashed it while Dalton held the staff at bay and then began tying the staff up with the hope of securing the master keys, when a cannonade of shots met our ears.

Something had definitely gone wrong. With nothing left to be done, Leonard and Dalton beat a hasty retreat from the office to the outside steps of the jail…and into bedlam.[1]

Mountjoy Prison

A Rescue Aborted

The other five men had been waiting with the car, expecting Leonard and Dalton to return with Mac Eoin between them, and for the second team outside to help distract the sentries on the wicket gate next to the main one.

“However, things did not work out according to plan,” recalled John McCaffrey:

…because the next thing I observed (having at this stage put my head outside the turret) was one of our two men producing revolvers and holding up the warders at the main gate.

Tom Kehoe
Tom Kehoe

Seeing this commotion, a British soldier called on the visitors to halt. At the same time, he raised his rifle and fired, narrowly missing Tom Keogh, one of the other IRA men who had been standing beside the vehicle:

As he was getting ready to fire again Tom Keogh very slowly and deliberately pulled out his revolver and shot the sentry. He immediately stepped over, picked up the sentry’s rifle which had fallen to the ground and threw it on to the back of the car. He then climbed into the car.

More gunshots were coming down from a prison lookout post. Caffrey struggled to return fire with the machine-gun mounted on the top of the armoured car but could not raise it sufficiently high. It was then that Leonard and Dalton reappeared and not a moment too soon; even without Mac Eoin, it was time to go – that is, if they could manage even that.[2]

With more Tommies bearing on them, Leonard picked up the rifle from the downed soldier and:

…ordered the British military back, and on their refusal to obey, knelt down and threatened to fire on them – they seeing an officer kneeling in the firing position, broke and retired to their quarters, but the Police advanced from another position.

Joe Leonard

Leonard and Dalton leapt on board their ride and roared at the driver to step on it. The car drove through the front entrance, now ajar thanks to the team outside who were supposed to rush the gates as a diversion – and had done so perhaps a little too well, for the guards had drawn their guns and opened fire, wounding one assailant, attracting the attention of the rest of the prison, and forcing Leonard and Dalton to withdraw from the Governor’s office.[3]

Leaving No Stone Unturned

All things considered, it was miraculous that the IRA team escaped at all – but Mac Eoin remained under lock and key. He had arranged for an interview in the Governor’s chamber, where his rescuers were to find him, but a relief force of Auxiliaries had come earlier that morning. Procedure dictated that the inmates be confined to their cells for the newcomers to inspect for identification purposes. Mac Eoin’s protests about his impending interview were to no avail, and it was left for him to ruminate on another missed chance and for others to ask what that had been all about.[4]

“The object of this exploit, it is believed,” read the Irish Times, “was to release an important political prisoner.”[5]

Michael Noyk

Even after that failure, with the trial date drawing near, Michael Collins did not lose hope of an armed intervention, all the while preparing the legal defence – which, under the circumstances, would be very much a last-ditch effort. In this, he was assisted by Michael Noyk, a long-time legal advisor for the revolutionary movement. Charles Wyse-Powers would defend Mac Eoin in court, as per Noyk’s recommendation, but, when he took ill, Noyk arranged for Charles Bewley to take up the duty instead.[6]

The Mullingar IRA Brigade, meanwhile, was granted a chance to redeem itself. Mac Eoin’s arrest at Mullingar Railway Station could have been avoided if the local Volunteers had intervened as ordered – but there was no point crying over a lost opportunity when another presented itself. Since Mac Eoin’s prosecution hinged on witnesses, the simple solution was to kill them before they could step foot inside the courtroom.

The various Auxiliaries, Black-and-Tan and other policemen from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) who had seen Mac Eoin in action, and earmarked to testify to that effect, were to pass through the Mullingar area to Dublin, so the tip-off went. Armed with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers, around fifty or sixty men from the Brigade mustered at Griffinstown, near Kinnegad, hiding behind the roadside fence or in some nearby ruins.

IRA Flying Column

That the turnout was as large as it was by Westmeath standards, and overseen by their Brigade O/C, showed that the Mullingar IRA was at last taking things seriously – until undone by their habitual incompetence when the mine laid on the route detonated prematurely, blowing a massive hole in the road as well as their chances, for surely the incoming convoy had heard. The would-be ambushers hastily withdrew, closing yet another window of opportunity for Mac Eoin – not that they need have bothered, for the information the Brigade had received was wrong, and the witnesses were coming by a different way, through Meath, by-passing Mullingar altogether.[7]

Insurgents elsewhere were feeling the strain. In Mac Eoin’s home county of Longford, “from the time Seán was arrested we did not seem to have the same ‘luck’ in our operations and the enemies [sic] morale had gone up,” recalled his brother, James. “They had become increasingly bold now, and were putting the pressure on very severely since they had got Seán behind the ‘bars’.” The loss of its commander had left the Longford Flying Column floundering, with no one able or willing to fill his shoes.[8]

Michael Collins

With a few weeks left to go, and options rapidly running out, Collins showed Noyk a plan of Dublin City Hall, where the court-martial was to take place, and asked if he could use his access to Mac Eoin, as part of his legal counsel, to smuggle in guns for him. When the time came, an armed Mac Eoin would be assisted in breaking out by Dublin IRA men posted at hand.

While he understood how important rescuing his friend was to Collins, Noyk had to point out that the likely security on the day – from armed guards in the court to machine-gun posts on the roofs outside – made escape a slim possibility. Always willing to temper emotion with logic, Collins conceded on that and dropped the idea. When Noyk saw Mac Eoin brought to the dock on the 14th June 1921, cuffed and flanked by burly policemen who stayed by his side throughout the proceedings, he knew he had made the right call in dissuading any further breakout efforts.[9]

The view from the front steps of Dublin City Hall, where Mac Eoin’s trial was held, looking down Parliament Street

‘Feloniously, Wilfully and of Malice Aforethought’

The charge sheet was duly read out to the assembled court:

The Accused, John Joseph McKeon…a civilian, is charged with committing a crime within the meaning of Regulation 67 of the Restoration of Order in Ireland Regulations, that is to say, murder, in that he…on 7th January 1921, feloniously, wilfully and of malice aforethought did kill and murder District Inspector [DI] Thomas McGrath.

When asked how he pleaded, Mac Eoin’s response went beyond a simple ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’, as he made clear to refute the claim that he was a mere civilian:

As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army, I have committed no break either of national law or international law. I admit no offence and I plead not guilty.[10]

The case for the prosecution relied on two points of evidence: RIC witnesses who placed Mac Eoin at the scene of the crime and as its perpetrator, and his alleged confession when arrested in Mullingar. The first of the former, Sergeant Ryan, had been stationed in Ballinalee, Co Longford, at the time, and whose duties included accompanying DI McGrath and four other uniformed colleagues as they approached a lone house in the countryside on the 7th January 1921.

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary

As guided by the Counsel for the Prosecution, Ryan described how he was walking directly behind McGrath as the DI led the way:

Q: What happened?

A: When the Officer [McGrath] turned to step into the doorway, this man, John McKeon, flashed and shot him down in the gutter. He put out his hand like that [witness gestures] and shot him down. I had a full view of him.

Q: You saw the accused come to the doorway and present his revolver or automatic pistol and fire a shot?

A: Yes.

Q: About how far away would you be from the accused when he fired?

A: I would be about three feet from him,

Q: With the District Inspector between you and this man?

A: Yes.

Q: Have you ever seen this man before? I do not want you to tell us anything about where you saw him.

A: Yes, I had.

Q: Did you know this man by sight?

A: Yes, I knew the man well by sight.

Q: Is that the man, the accused there, who fired the shot?

A: Yes, that is the man.

Q: Have you any doubt about it?

A: No, no doubt at all.

Q: He fired one shot, you say, at the Inspector?

A: Yes.

Q: Was that all?

A: Yes.

Q: What happened to the Inspector?

A: He fell down dead in the gutter in my opinion; he never moved. He fell down on his face.[11]

A Dying Confession?

The second buttress in the prosecution’s case was the confession, as related by another police witness who had been present in Mullingar on the 2nd March:

Mullingar Garda Station, formerly the RIC barracks where Seán Mac Eoin was taken after capture

Q: Tell us what happened after he was recaptured?

A: He was then taken into the Police Station and he asked for a priest and a doctor.

Q: Where was he wounded?

A: He was wounded in the breast.

Q: By a rifle shot?

A: By a rifle shot. He was taken in to the Police Station and he asked for a priest and a doctor, and they were brought and attended to him immediately.

Q: Did the doctor attend to him?

A: Yes, the doctor attended to him.

Q:  Did he dress the wounds?

A: Yes, he dressed the wounds.

Q: Did the priest see him?

A: He did. He then made the following statement to me and to all the other police who were present, but I took it down as I was the sergeant.

Q: He made a voluntary statement to you, then?

A: Yes, after the priest and the doctor had gone. Of course, he was apparently in a dying condition at the time.

Q: While the priest and the doctor were there, nothing happened?

A: No.

Q: It was not until after they had left that he made a statement?

A: That is so.

Q: Was he in bed?

A: No, he was sitting on a form near the window. He was then apparently in a dying condition.

Q: Tell us a little more about that.

A: He was very pale.

Q: Did he speak distinctly?

A: He spoke distinctly but in a weak voice.

Q: When the priest and the doctor had gone, did he say anything to you or to anybody who was there?

A: He said: “I shot DI McGrath.”[12]

‘Trust in God…’

A cynic might wonder why a man, dying or otherwise, would admit to a hanging offence in earshot of his mortal enemies and only after other witnesses had left. In any case, Mac Eoin and his legal allies had no delusions as to the odds of acquittal. While a capable lawyer, Bewley was hamstrung by how, as Noyk observed:

There was very little to defend in one sense. The only possible defence was that the night was dark and as there was a lot of indiscriminate shooting by the RIC themselves, one of their bullets might have hit Inspector McGrath who was in charge of the party.

However, when a prejudiced courtmartial, as in all the other cases, was functioning there was no possibility of that defence being successful though Mr Bewley made the most of what he could in that direction.[13]

Charles Bewley

Mac Eoin likewise acknowledged that Bewley did his best, even in what the former called a “queer, one-sided trial.” After all, the only witnesses Bewley could call to counteract the official version of McGrath’s death were Mac Eoin’s IRA comrades, who were hardly likely to enter a British court of law unless in chains. Though Bewley succeeded in pointing out discrepancies in the witness testimonies, “it was all talk, talk, talk, talk, and with one obvious result,” that being the inevitable pronouncement of death.

All that was left for Mac Eoin to do was go down fighting – one way or another.

The prosecution rested its case. Papers were shuffled and a few whispered words exchanged about the chamber. Bewley asked permission for his client to address the court, as well as the courtesy of his handcuffs being removed. Both requests were granted and Mac Eoin, after rubbing the stiffness out of his wrists as best he could, discreetly took out of his pocket one of the two slips of card, torn from a cigarette packet.

On each was written a different phrase. If Mac Eoin had been fatalistic upon his arrest – “I know I am for a firing-squad, anyway,” he was reported to have said – now he resorted to a gambler’s toss of the coin. Should the card he drew be the one that read ‘Trust in God, go ahead and do your best!’, then he would seize the revolver off the policeman beside him, firing in one hand while using the other arm to hold his captive as a human-shield.

All the while, Mac Eoin would somehow endeavour to reach the window, through which he would leap to freedom…that is, if he could avoid a broken leg from the thirty feet drop. And make it past the loops of barbed-wire across the outside steps. And not get cut down by a bullet at any point in the process. He would at least have the assistance of Collins’ rescue team, armed and ready in the Royal Exchange Hotel on Parliament Street, opposite Dublin City Hall – contrary to what Noyk believed, Collins was keeping that option open – but Mac Eoin did not rate his odds of success very highly at all.[14]

He might have had a better chance than he thought. Almost three decades later, Mac Eoin made the acquaintance of Noël Browne as part of the Inter-Party Government of 1948-1951. To Browne, his fellow Cabinet Minister was a “gentle peaceful man”, his warrior days long behind him – until Mac Eoin gave a practical demonstration on how to disarm someone by pinning Browne’s hand behind his back. Despite the twenty-two years’ difference between them, the younger Browne was helpless to break out.[15]

Seán Mac Eoin in later years

In any case, Mac Eoin drew the card with the words ‘Trust in God, have patience and wait!’ That was fate’s signal that he should accept things for the moment and stay put.[16]

‘…Have Patience and Wait’

Seán Mac Eoin

But, if he would have to endure proceedings stoically, then there was no reason to do so passively. “The closing stage of the trial before Court Martial in Dublin yesterday of John Joseph McKeon of Ballinalee,” reported the Evening Herald on the 15th June 1921, “was marked by a remarkable speech by the accused from the dock.” The first draft had been smuggled out beforehand by Noyk and handed to Collins, who made some slight amendments before Noyk passed it back to his client on the morning of the trial. Otherwise, the words Mac Eoin delivered were his own.[17]

“Officers and gentlemen of the court-martial,” he began:

When you opened this court-martial this morning, I told you I was an officer of the Irish Republican Army and that, as such, claimed treatment as an officer. But, gentlemen, you are here to try me, not as an officer, but as a murderer. Why? Just because I took up arms in defence of my native land? The defence of one’s native land has ever been a privilege to the people of all nations.

As such, as a soldier, he had always abided by the rules of war, including fair treatment of all prisoners he had taken, some of whom would testify to the truth of that. In contrast had been the treatment meted out to him in Mullingar, when his captors had beaten him with rifle-butts.

I have no reason to disparage them in any way or to say anything that is not true, but they did that. I will not say that they did it according to their orders and I will not say that they did it without orders…I was called a murderer in the Day Room of the Barracks. Anyone can understand easily that when I went into the Day Room there was a hubbub – “McKeon the murderer is in.” Yes, but I say: “McKeon the man was in.”

When Mac Eoin had found himself cornered by Crown forces in a cottage in Ballinalee on the 7th January 1921, five months ago, his intent had not been to kill DI McGrath, at least not specifically. Since there were two elderly ladies with him inside, Mac Eoin had had no wish to stand his ground and bring the war to them; instead, he charged out to meet his foes head-on, regardless of the numbers arrayed against him:

Fire was opened by both sides simultaneously. After the first exchange, I noticed that the officer [McGrath] had fallen and that his men were running away down the road. But I wish to emphasis that I fired at enemy forces, not at any particular individual.

McGrath, he explained, “had simply fallen in the fight” as a casualty of combat. It was an explanation, not an excuse. He was no murderer, as the people of Longford and his comrades-in-arms well knew, and he praised both, the former group for their confidence in him, and the latter for gallantry and loyalty, even in the face of overwhelming odds. As for his audience:

From you, I crave no mercy and no favour. I am an officer of the Irish Army and I merely claim the same right at your hands as you would have receive at mine had the fortunes of war reversed the positions. If you do not give me that right, and if you execute me instead, then there is one request that I make. It is that you give my dead body to my relatives so that my remains may be laid to rest amongst my own people.

At this, the speech came to its end. Back went on the handcuffs, and it was left to Bewley to step back in for the rest of his dogged defence.[18]

Clonfin Recollections

Strictly speaking, what Bewley introduced next was not evidence of his client’s innocence; if anything, they confirmed his military activities against Crown rule in Ireland – not that Mac Eoin had denied them. Bewley admitted as such, explaining that the witnesses he now called were as character references for the accused. It was an unorthodox approach, and even more so because the witnesses in question had been on the receiving end of the Clonfin Ambush, which Mac Eoin had led as the IRA Longford Flying Column commander, on the 2nd February 1921.[19]

IRA Flying Column

And yet, as men like Cadet Smith took the stand, it was apparent that there was some truth to Mac Eoin’s claim to have followed battlefield decorum:

Bewley: Were you in the first or second lorry at the time of this ambush?

Smith: In the second.

Bewley: You saw the first lorry blown up in front of you?

Smith: I saw the mine go up.

Bewley:  And then your lorry was stopped?

Smith: Yes.

Bewley: Was fire then opened upon you?

Smith: Yes.

Bewley: After putting up a fight for some considerable time, I understand you surrendered?

Smith: Yes.

RIC patrol on Crossley Tenders

Bewley: Before you surrendered, did you hear him call on you to surrender or anything of that sort?

Smith: Several people called on us to surrender.

Bewley: There was no ill-treatment of any of you after the surrender?

Smith: No.

Bewley: After the surrender and you had been disarmed, did you speak to McKeon?

Smith: I spoke to McKeon. First of all, he shook hands with me and told me we had put up a good fight. After that, he left me and I went up to him again after a time and asked if I could go and get some water for some of our men who were wounded. He gave me permission to go and said he would send one of his men with us and I went with another cadet and got the water.

Bewley: Did you see any attempts at violence at any of your party?

Smith: We saw one of the men on the other side of the road hit Cadet Maddock across the face and also make a statement that he wanted to shoot us but McKeon stopped him.

Bewley: After a while, did you see McKeon doing anything for any of your wounded?

Smith: He attempted to help DI Taylor to bandage his wounds but he did not have time because the police arrived.

Bewley: He left because your reinforcements were coming up?

Smith: That is correct.

Bewley: Do you know whether he made any arrangements about your taking one of your lorries to go away in?

Smith: Yes, he said that we could have one of our lorries to take the dead and wounded away in and also that he would send a doctor along to us.

Wreckage of a British military vehicle at Kilmichael, Co, Cork, November 1920

The next witness, Cadet T.J. Wilford, corroborated Smith’s testimony, as part of which he recounted an exchange between the defendant and another of the Auxiliaries at Clonfin that day, called Keeble:

I heard [Keeble] say “Now you have killed three or four of our fellows and wounded several of them, are you going to take our lives as well?”, and McKeon said “No, I am going to let you go, and get your wounded away as best you can.

Perhaps it was just as well that the Mullingar Volunteers had failed to kill the witnesses. All that was left was the summing up of the respective counsels, though there was a brief diversion into theology when the Judge Advocate brought up how Mac Eoin had supposedly uttered an act of contrition into the ear of the fallen McGrath:

Judge: You will probably think that [from] the evidence that the District Inspector was dead before he could have done that is true. However, it may be what is a little difficult to understand is why this whispered act of contrition was necessary if the accused was engaged in an act of legitimate warfare as is alleged in this case.

Bewley: The act of contrition has a rather different signification.

Judge: I may be wrong. I am not a member of the Roman Catholic Church and I entirely withdraw it.

Bewley: If I might state it to the Court very shortly, an act of contrition is a sentiment of contrition for all the sins of his past life which a dying man would naturally wish to express personally, and if the dying man appears to be so weak that he would not be able to express it, any Catholic would consider it his duty to repeat the act of contrition into his ear, and if the  District Inspector assented to it, it would be the same as if he himself had expressed it.

Judge: You mean the accused is in this case saying something to the District Inspector which he thinks the District Inspector would himself have liked to express?

Bewley: Yes.

Judge: I entirely withdraw what I said.[20]

‘The Big Four’

Eamonn Duggan

Not withdrawn was the inevitable penalty for murder, as DI McGrath’s death remained as per British law, and Mac Eoin was duly sentenced to death. The day after, he was transferred to the condemned row in Mountjoy. Seeing Arthur Griffith, Michael Staines and Eamonn Duggan in the exercise-grounds outside his window, he threw out to them the paper notification of his sentence, folded up in a match-box, for them to retrieve.[21]

With word getting around of his impending fate, Mac Eoin could enjoy at least a certain celebrity as a member of the ‘Big Four’, whose cells adjoined each other’s. One half of the quartet, Mac Eoin and John Donnelly, were under sentence of death, while the other pair, Frank Carty and Christie Carberry, had had the distinction of lengthy jail terms bestowed on them.

Frank Carty

Donnelly’s trial had been two days before Mac Eoin’s for his part in an ambush on Brunswick Street, Dublin, during which he received four bullets and required two operations to survive. While in the prison yard together, Mac Eoin confided in Donnelly the latest scheme to get them out; when one had failed, another was grown, like the heads of the legendary Hydra. This time it was by the IRA engineers, tasked by an unabating Collins with tunnelling along the canal side of Mountjoy and into the yard. Complications arose, however, thwarting escape yet again, and though Mac Eoin assured Donnelly that other plans were in the Collins pipeline, the sand in the hourglass for both of the condemned was fast running down.

With nothing else to do, Mac Eoin:

…told me on exercise that one of the Chief Wardens, Mr Breslin, had smuggled in two revolvers, one for Mac Eoin and one for me, and on the morning that we were to be executed, we were to die fighting sooner than be hanged. We were just getting transferred to the condemned cells when the Truce [of 11th July 1921] came in.[22]

Even with hostilities at a halt, Mac Eoin was not out of the fire quite yet. As a prequel to the peace talks in London, it was decreed that all elected representatives of Dáil Éireann who were under lock and key – totalling thirty-five TDs, scattered about in institutions like Mountjoy, Dundalk, Shrewsbury and Dartmoor Prisons, Ballykinlar and Curragh Camps, and Spike Island – be released in time to attend a Dáil session on the 16th August 1921.

The men behind the wire at Ballykinlar Internment Camp

Not that anything in Ireland was ever quite so simple, for, in a pronouncement from Dublin Castle on the 6th August:

His Majesty’s Government have decided that one member, J.J. McKeon, who has been convicted of murder, cannot be released.

What with all the ambushes, assassinations and gunplay dominating the headlines and history books, it is easy to forget that the War of Independence was as much a political as military one. Mac Eoin was TD for the Longford-Westmeath seat, a standing he had probably not given much thought to – the 16th August was to be the first opening of the Dáil in a long, long while – but which reared up as one of utmost importance now.

In response to the caveat:

It was officially stated last night [7th August 1921] on behalf of Dáil Éireann that there can be no meeting of Dáil Éireann until Commandant J.J. McKeon is released. It was added that the refusal to release him appears to indicate a desire on the part of the English Government to terminate the truce.

Further pronounced was how, unless Mac Eoin was freed within the next forty-eight hours, the Truce would indeed be considered null and void. Just when Mac Eoin, and Ireland as a whole, had been granted a respite, circumstances were conspiring to steal even that. With no Truce, the war would be resumed, and Mac Eoin’s sentence carried out, barring one of Collins’ attempts at playing Scarlet Pimpernel finally succeeding in the eleventh hour.[23]

Wit and Wisdom

David Lloyd George

Mac Eoin’s fate had already been of intense interest to figures on both sides of the Anglo-Irish divide, such as Frank Heming, Assistant Secretary to the Chief Secretary of Ireland’s office. According to a conversation with Mac Eoin in the Irish Embassy in London, in the very different time of 1938, Heming had already saved Mac Eoin’s before, in June 1921, when he was first scheduled to be hanged.

Recognising the spanner that Mac Eoin’s death would throw in the burgeoning peace talks, Heming went so far as to enter 10 Downing Street unannounced, to the back-garden, where David Lloyd George was trying to relax with his grandchild. More politics was the last thing a peevish Prime Minister wanted to spend his rare break discussing, but Heming persisted, so he recounted to Mac Eoin:

Mr Heming told me he was explaining in detail what he considered would be the reactions to my execution when at this point the grandchild caught the Prime Minister’s hand  and said, “Granddaddy! Come and play!”, to which he replied, “I cannot play now. I have to decide whether a man will live or die”, and that the child replied, “Let him live, Granddaddy! And come on and play!”; then Lloyd George turned to him, Heming, and said, “There is your answer! Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings comes the decision.”[24]

That is, if Lloyd George really allowed young children to decide state policy. A more hard-nosed analysis was provided by General Nevil Macready, commander of the British Army in Ireland, however little he liked the posting, loathing as he did the country and its convoluted ways. To him, the insurgency of the past three years had been nothing more than “an orgy of murder”, with culpability firmly on rebel shoulders.

Alfred Cope

Nonetheless, Macready kept himself objective when Alfred Cope, Assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland, came to seek his views on the Irish threats to refuse any further peace overtures should Mac Eoin not be freed. Why Mac Eoin should have been singled out in the first place, Macready did not know, putting it down to “some inscrutable reason” – one could imagine his eyes rolling to the heavens as he wrote this in his memoirs – of his civilian overseers in Westminster. In any case, he told Cope he would not protest Mac Eoin’s release, seeing it as a political rather than military responsibility. He repeated this answer when asked again, this time officially by his government.

Privately, Macready rather liked Mac Eoin, in so much as he liked anything Irish, having chatted with him a few times while the latter was recuperating in the King George V Military Hospital from the bullet-wound received in Mullingar. Mac Eoin was one of the few IRA men Macready had met possessive of a sense of humour, a distinction he shared with Collins. Hibernian humour was a subject on which Macready had much to say. “Although the Irish as a race are devoid of humour,” he advised, “it is essential to the peace of mind of anyone who has dealings with them.”

Sir Nevil Macready

The exception to the rule, Mac Eoin “struck me as a more cheery individual than most of his fellows,” who tended to be of a “fanatical, bitter cast of countenance,” as Macready found them.[25]

Mac Eoin’s wit was on display during a visit in Mountjoy by Canon Markey, a priest from back home in Longford. To the padre’s blasé assurances that everything would be alright, Mac Eoin retorted that he had never known of anyone dropped with a rope around their neck and being the better for it. But Canon Markey was a man of boundless faith, and repeated to the Doubting Thomas before him that Mac Eoin would indeed be fine.[26]

The Final Lap

And he was.

Finally released as demanded and advised, Mac Eoin was awarded a hero’s welcome in his native Longford, the first time he had been back since his fateful departure for Dublin in February 1921, six months ago. Over a hundred people were present on the 11th August 1921, at his reception in St Mel’s College, Longford town. More crowds waited at Ballinalee as Mac Eoin drove there the following day to his home, accompanied by his mother and sister in the car, passing bonfires that lit up the morning darkness.

Statue of Seán Mac Eoin in Ballinalee, Co. Longford

Yet more multitudes pressed to watch as he travelled next to Bunlahy, Granard, Clonfin and then back to Ballinalee, in what “can only be described as a triumphal march,” according to the Irish Independent, during which Mac Eoin was often obliged:

…to descend from his motor to return the hearty welcome given him. Old women knelt down on bended knees as if in reverence to the great hero, whilst old men and children approached him with tear-dimmed eyes.[27]

Similarly appreciative were his fellow TDs and comrades-in-arms at the opening of Dáil Éireann in the Mansion House, Dublin, on the 16th August 1921. When his turn came to stand and take the oath of allegiance to the Irish Republic, it prompted a burst of applause. In his début as a political figure, Mac Eoin looked different to what many had been expecting of the famed guerrilla warrior but, then, so did many others, such as a boyish Collins and a delicate-seeming Richard Mulcahy.[28]

The Dáil meeting inside the Mansion House, Dublin

All three had previously attended another, more low-key meeting, one for the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. A long-time initiate in the secret fraternity, Mac Eoin was now elevated to its ruling council, as part of which he was directed by Collins, its president, to propose the election of Éamon de Valera for another presidency, that of the Irish Republic, at a parliamentary session on the 26th August 1921. Though the ironic hindsight – given the schism between Mac Eoin and de Valera to come, centred around the issue of a very different type of oath of allegiance – would border on ridiculous, it was a great honour for Mac Eoin, and Collins clearly had big plans for the man on whose behalf he had spent so much time and effort.[29]

But it was not all business between the pair. As Mac Eoin told Brian Farrell in an interview for Radio Telefis Éireann, many years later, on the 24th August 1962:

Brian Farrell

Farrell: [Collins] had the reputation in his play hours of being a very boisterous man. Did you ever have any contact with this apart from your initial contact?

Mac Eoin: Only once, the day I was released. When I met him at Vaughan’s Hotel he jumped from the top of the steps outside the hotel down on top of me and flattened me on Parnell Square. That was the affectionate way he had of greeting me.

Farrell: This sort of big boisterousness.

Mac Eoin: Yes, it was a loveable way.[30]

Michael Collins (third from left) posing with others, including Seán Mac Eoin (far right) in Free State army uniform

To be continued in: Shadows and Substance: Seán Mac Eoin and the Slide into Civil War, 1922


[1] Leonard, Joe (BMH / WS 547), pp. 16-9

[2] Caffrey, John Anthony (BMH / WS 569), p. 9

[3] Leonard, p. 19

[4] Mac Eoin, Seán (BMH / WS 1716, Part II), pp. 205-6

[5] Irish Times, 16/05/1921

[6] Noyk, Michael (BMH / WS 707), p. 82

[7] Flynn, Bartholomew (BMH / WS 1552), pp. 10-1

[8] McKeon, James (BMH / WS 436), p. 21

[9] Noyk, pp. 85-6

[10] Mac Eoin, Part I, p. 34

[11] Ibid, pp. 42-3

[12] Ibid, pp. 67-8

[13] Noyk, p. 85

[14] Mac Eoin, Part II, pp. 208-11

[15] Browne, Noël. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1986), p. 6

[16] Mac Eoin, Part II, p. 211

[17] Evening Herald, 15/06/1921 ; Noyk, p. 86

[18] Mac Eoin, Part I, pp. 109-11

[19] Ibid, p. 115

[20] Ibid, pp. 121-5

[21] Ibid, Part II, p. 212

[22] Donnelly, John (BMH / WS 626), pp. 4-5

[23] Irish Times, 08/09/1921

[24] Mac Eoin, Part II, pp. 215-6

[25] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Vol. II (London: Hutchinson & Co., [1924]), pp. 584-6, 604

[26] Mac Eoin, Part II, pp. 217-8

[27] Irish Independent, 13/08/1921

[28] Irish Times, 17/08/1921

[29] Ibid, 27/08/1921 ; Mac Eoin, Part II, p. 220

[30] University College Dublin Archives, Seán Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1852



Browne, Noël. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1986)

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life (London: Hutchinson & Co., [1924])


Evening Herald

Irish / Sunday Independent

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Caffrey, John Anthony, WS 569

Donnelly, John, WS 626

Flynn, Bartholomew, WS 1552

Leonard, Joe, WS 547

Mac Eoin, Seán, WS 1716

McKeon, James, WS 436

Noyk, Michael, WS 707

University College Dublin Archives

Seán Mac Eoin Papers

Caught by a Whisker: Seán Mac Eoin and the Fight for his Life, 1921 (Part I)

The Ride Back

Seán Mac Eoin

It was with a stroke of luck that the two passengers found an empty train carriage as the space and privacy allowed them to store their parcel on the luggage rack. The package was not one they would otherwise have treated so casually, given how it was full of ammunition. With that, the pair settled down to a leisurely return journey from Dublin to Co. Longford, where both of them – Seán Mac Eoin and James Brady – were active members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).[1]

It was on IRA business that Mac Eoin had visited Dublin, in response to the mailed orders of Cathal Brugha, the Minister for Defence for the underground rebel government. Mac Eoin was somewhat surprised – the Minister did not usually contact others directly – and not wholly thrilled at the summons, given how he was a hunted man, wanted by the British authorities in connection with a number of ambushes that he had led as O/C of the Longford IRA flying column.

In addition, there was the murder charge concerning a police officer, cut down by gunfire while investigating a house Mac Eoin and some others were in. If caught, he would almost certainly be executed. But Mac Eoin was a soldier, and soldiers follow orders, so he journeyed to the big city in the last week of February 1921, accompanied by Brady, who had served as a driver in one of the column’s ambushes.

IRA Flying Column

Following the directions he had been given, Mac Eoin went alone to the candle factory on Bachelor’s Walk that served as Brugha’s headquarters. The Minister got briskly down to business, cross-examining his guest on his military progress for the past year. Brugha was a thorough interrogator but Mac Eoin had taken the precaution of bringing a diary – the handwriting artfully indecipherable to all but himself – and was able to answer each of the questions posed to him.

Bachelor’s Walk, Dublin (today)

This took some time. When Brugha was finally done, he moved to the next item on his agenda. As Mac Eoin recalled:

He told me that his reason for asking me so many searching questions was a big one, that he wanted to take me away from the Longford work, and give me a far more difficult job – in London. How would I like that?

Choosing his words carefully, Mac Eoin replied that he would do whatever instructed. Liking or disliking was not a factor. Brugha appeared satisfied at this and proceeded to inform him that he was to undertake the most important mission so far in their war against Britain.[2]

Mission to London

Cathal Brugha

This was nothing less than the assassination of the entire British Cabinet. Fighting the Crown forces on Irish soil was all very well, Brugha explained, but would not in itself save Ireland. For every foe slain could simply be replaced, with the campaign of murder and arson continued in Ireland, and the people of Britain none the wiser about the crimes committed in their name.

Striking at the heart of the Westminster Establishment, well, that would be a very different matter, one which the British public would have no choice but to sit up and take notice of. Mac Eoin was thus to lead the selected team to London, with each member allocated the name of the Government Minister he was to execute. Logistics would be left to Mac Eoin to handle – that is, if he accepted.

Brugha stared at Mac Eoin straight in the eye, waiting for the ‘yay or ‘nay’, leaving the other man distinctly uncomfortable; not so much with the morality of the operation – if it was legitimate to kill the invader of your country, surely it was equally just to do so to the one who sent him in the first place – but the practicalities.

After a minute of silence with which to muster his thoughts, Mac Eoin:

…explained that I thought I was not the man to lead such a party…Did he realise that I was only a plain, simple country lad, inexperienced and untraveled, who had never been beyond Dublin, and, even in Dublin, would be a poor leader of a mission.

Not at all, Brugha brusquely reassured him in his not-very-reassuring manner. Mac Eoin was just the man for the job – which, by the way, was to start on Wednesday, in two days’ time.

This startled Mac Eoin into further protest. There were duties of his back in Longford that would need to be settled, he said. Though Brugha initially resisted sparing Mac Eoin any further time, he at last relented: Mac Eoin could head off to London on the Friday instead. The pair shook hands, sealing the deal, upon which Mac Eoin took his leave to seek the rest of the IRA leadership in Dublin.[3]

If Mac Eoin had been surprised and more than a bit flustered at Brugha’s briefing, then Michael Collins was aghast when Mac Eoin relayed the details of the undertaking to him. “You are mad!” Collins said. “Do you think that England has only the makings of one Cabinet?”

Michael Collins

As if not angry enough, Collins was flummoxed as to why Mac Eoin was wasting time in Dublin when he already had more than enough work to do in his native county. Collins ordered him back to Longford henceforth, to which Mac Eoin – however little he liked the situation – stood his ground, pointing out that Brugha, as Minister for Defence, could not simply be overruled, least of all by a mere verbal command. Calming down, Collins promised to provide him with a more concrete directive in writing.[4]

In this, Collins was true to his word. When they met next on the Wednesday, Collins handed Mac Eoin a letter from Brugha, cancelling the mission to London. As good and dutiful a soldier as he was, Mac Eoin doubtlessly breathed a sigh of relief – whatever arguments Collins had made or strings he pulled behind the scenes had worked. Mac Eoin was now free to return home, to pick up the fighting from where he had left off in Longford, and not a minute too soon.[5]

That is, if he made it back at all.

A Soldier’s Attempt

From the Irish Times, 4th March 1921:

A report that McKeon [alternative spelling], the rebel leader in Ballinalee, who was wanted by the police on several charges, was captured at Mullingar on the arrival of the night mail on Wednesday [2nd March 1921], is confirmed at Longford.

It is stated that the fugitive, who travelled in a third class carriage, was surrounded by the military and police, and that in an attempt to escape he was fired on and seriously wounded. McKeon, who is a blacksmith by trade, had been “on the run” for many months.[6]

Mullingar Train Station (today)

From the sworn testimony of a police witness for the prosecution during the court-martial of Séan Mac Eoin, three months later, on the 14th June 1921:

Q: Were you stationed at Mullingar with a party of police in March of this year?

A: Yes.

Q: On the 2nd March, were you at the Railway Station?

A: Yes.

Q: On the arrival of the 9 o’clock train from Dublin that night?

A: Yes.

Q: Did you see some male passengers on the platform?

A: Yes, a number of male passengers were taken from the train after it came in and lined up on the platform and searched. Among them was a man who gave his name as Smith from Aughnacliffe.

Q: When you heard him say that did you say anything?

A: Yes, I recognised him and I said: “You are John James McKeon from Ballinalee.”[7]

mdjmmjcwnza0ndg3ndkxzwyxogu1zjqxytlimjm0ngy54ujaptwlr8sowroiq3yxahr0cdovl3mzlwv1lxdlc3qtms5hbwf6b25hd3muy29tl21lzglhbwfzdgvylxmzzxuvnwu3mtc0odu0zjczmzuwyzy1m2jjnwu4mtvlnwzizjh8fhx8fhw2ndIrish Times, 4th March 1921:

As the police and military were marching the prisoners from the station…McKeon made a dash for liberty…Shots rang out, and McKeon was struck, but continued to run.

Being a very quick runner, he had gained considerable ground when he was again hit, the bullet passing through the right breast. When he was turning into a gateway he was hit in the arm, and felled. He was then taken to the police barracks in the town under a heavy escort, and his condition is considered precarious.[8]

Mullingar Garda Station, formerly the RIC barracks where Seán Mac Eoin was taken after capture

Q: Did you proceed to take him to the barracks?

A: Yes.

Q: Was he handcuffed on the way to the barracks?

A: Yes.

Q: During the journey to the barracks, did he make a determined effort to escape from the escort?

A: He did.

Q: Was he recaptured?

A: He was.

Q: During the process, was he fired at and wounded?

A: Yes.

Q: On the way to the barracks after being wounded, did he say anything?

A: Yes. Going on towards the barracks he turned to me and said, “You are right, I am the man. I made a soldier’s attempt to escape and failed.” Then, after a pause, he said: “I know I am for a firing squad, anyway.”[9]

Seán Mac Eoin in the uniform of an Irish Volunteer

A Mullingar Mess

To add insult to injury, the whole debacle could have been avoided. Mac Eoin’s capture had been the consequence of carelessness, by others – and himself.

While contemporary accounts indicate that the discovery of Mac Eoin in Mullingar had been by chance, Mac Eoin later told a different spin on the story to Ann Farrington, manager of the Crown Hotel, adjoining the Gresham on O’Connell Street, where Mac Eoin stayed while in Dublin, as did a number of other rebel leaders such as Collins, Eoin O’Duffy and Dan Breen. Mac Eoin had a number of aliases under which to sign in – ‘Mr Brown’, ‘Mr Black’, ‘Mr Green’ and so on – but he was less cautious during his last stay, when he had with him a female acquaintance, who he intended to use as a courier for orders to his Longford IRA column.

The Gresham Hotel, O’Connell Street, Dublin (today)

As the pair sat opposite each other at a table in the hotel smoking-room:

He took a sheet of paper and started writing out the message and when he had finished he put it in an envelope which he closed and handed to her. He was not aware that she had followed every word as he wrote it and therefore knew the contents of the message.

What followed then is a matter of conjecture on Farrington’s part, but, according to her, the girl – who Farrington had never seen before or since, and whose name is unknown – passed on the envelope as instructed, and then went to her uncle, a retired RIC man:

Evidently the uncle went to the Tans and told them about the message which gave the clue about the train he intended to travel by. As a result the train was met in Mullingar by the Tans who started to search for McKeon.

As for further details, Farrington wrote, “probably Seán himself would be able to give the information.”[10]

Mac Eoin did not, making no mention of any double-crossing colleen or leaked itinerary in his own account. He noted, however, that his train stopped at a different platform in Mullingar Station than expected, one crowded with RIC personnel and British soldiers, who ordered the passengers out before lining them up for inspection. With them was a Head Constable who had previously escorted Mac Eoin to jail in 1919 and was thus qualified to recognise the fugitive – as indeed he did.

Black-and-Tans search Irish suspects (possibly staged photo)

Even so, Mac Eoin could have escaped, as one of the other senior policemen present, District Inspector Harrington, was one of Michael Collins’ many agents within the Crown forces. Mac Eoin was to learn that Harrington had been instructed by Collins to alert the Mullingar IRA of Mac Eoin’s arrival and for them to stop the train and take him off before it pulled into the station – “a tip that the Mullingar Brigade, never any good, had failed to act upon,” as Mac Eoin stingingly put it.[11]

He would have been even angrier had he known the difference a simple bicycle could have made. A telegram from Dublin Castle to the Mullingar police had been intercepted by another rebel mole, this being Jimmy Hynes, the principal telegraphist in Mullingar Post Office. Upon Mac Eoin’s arrest, Hynes asked his IRA contact what had happened. Had he not received the warning Hynes had sent?

“Yes,” said the other man, “but I could not get a bicycle.”[12]

‘Alas and Alas!’

Michael Noyk

Mac Eoin’s arrest was a heavy blow, not least to Collins, who would be preoccupied by his fate for as long as it hung in the balance. Michael Noyk, an in-house solicitor for the revolutionary underground, described Mac Eoin as being “one of the special favourites of Michael Collins,” who paid tribute to him as being worth four or five other men.[13]

Efforts to rescue Mac Eoin began a day or two after his arrest, when Collins dispatched seven members of his ‘Squad’ to Leixlip, Co. Kildare, through which, it was believed, Mac Eoin would be transported en route to Dublin. Collins would have sent more but those were the most to be found at such short notice.

Time, after all, was of the essence.

Members of the ‘Squad’

The selected men drove to Leixlip, keeping their eyes along the road for the Red Cross ambulance Mac Eoin was supposed to be hidden in and their firearms ready should the chance of a hijack arise. It did not and, with no sight of the desired vehicle, the would-be-rescuers returned to Dublin, where Mac Eoin already was, having been delivered by a different way as it turned out.[14]

Perhaps this failure was just as well. Inside the ambulance with Mac Eoin had been two policemen and an army officer, all armed with guns that they intended to use on him in the event of trouble, as they warned at the start. Mac Eoin protested that this was hardly appropriate for the Red Cross; besides, he was still weak from the wounds received from his ill-fated dash for freedom but the officer replied: “We know you too well to take any risk” – which was a compliment of sorts.

The ambulance drove first in the opposite direction towards Longford, then doubled back through Meath and reached Dublin by the Trim-Belfast road – a roundabout route, but it did the trick of outfoxing any ambushers. After more than two years of insurgency, the British were becoming savvy to Ireland’s ways.

The first stop was the King George V Military Hospital, for a bullet still lay buried beneath the skin at the back of Mac Eoin’s shoulder, requiring an operation to extract. This process was not a pleasant one, for Mac Eoin refused any anaesthetic stronger than a localised sort for fear of spilling any incriminating secrets in a drugged state.

St Bricin’s Military Hospital (formerly the King George V Military Hospital)

But the pain was worth it, with the offending item successfully plucked out, and Mac Eoin had the first glimmer of hope when the hospital chaplain startled him with word from the ‘Big Fellow’: Collins was planning to send a group of his followers disguised in British uniforms on the following evening, at 11 pm:

I need not say that this was joyful intelligence to me. I slept very little that night, but did not care, and every hour of the next day was long in passing until night should come – and the fateful eleven o’clock. But my fate was settled two hours earlier for, on the stroke of nine o’clock, I was astonished to see a military officer walk into me – attended by his satellites. But alas and alas! They proved to be real Britishers.[15]

There was nothing be done but allow himself to be transferred to his accommodation at Mountjoy Prison. Since he was still on the mend, he was allowed a ground-floor room in the hospital wing, facing the main building, which Mac Eoin could see through a window with about half a dozen iron bars across.

A formidable obstacle, to be sure, but one that would hopefully be breached by the hacksaw that a female visitor had smuggled in under her overcoat, complete with instructions from Collins – who was not one to give up – for Mac Eoin, at the assigned time on a certain date, to saw his way through. Then Mac Eoin was to cross the yard to the prison wall, in time for the wicket gate there to be opened by men from the Dublin IRA, waiting on the other side.

IRA men

in his weakened state, Mac Eoin succeeded in cutting through the bars, working at intervals to allow for the turnkey on duty to pass by obliviously. Only the last few inches of metal remained, and Mac Eoin rested in bed, mustering his strength for the final push, when a doctor stopped by to check on him. Shocked at his patient’s high temperature, the conscientious-but-meddlesome physician ordered the warden to remove Mac Eoin to a different room, one on the third floor for the fresh air.

“And another bright hope of Séan MacEoin was nipped in the bud,” the man in question later bewailed in the third person.[16]

Mountjoy Prison

A Rescue Planned

With the days counting down towards Mac Eoin’s court-martial and the almost inevitable sentence of death, only the direct approach was left to try.

The germ of the idea came when Michael Lynch noticed the armoured car outside the Dublin Corporation abattoir on North Circular Road every morning to escort the van picking up the daily meat for the British Army. Lynch was in an unusual position, being Superintendent of the butchery as well as O/C of Fingal IRA Brigade, a combination of civilian and guerrilla duties that required him to be absent from work during the day until he could enter the slaughterhouse at night when everyone else had gone.

It was his wife, from their house opposite the abattoir gate, who drew his attention to the armoured vehicle, and Lynch, seeing its potential for the IRA’s own use, relayed this to Collins. Collins was infuriated at what he saw as a fool’s errand but Lynch was adamant. He had been observing the car for some time from his window and how sloppy the crew had become through routine, to the point of leaving their ride unguarded save for a mere padlock on a chain. Collins sent two of his Squad, Joe Leonard and Charlie Dalton, to the Lynch residence to gauge the potential prize for themselves.

Members of the Squad, with Joe Leonard (far left) and Charlie Dalton (far right)

What they reported back must have satisfied Collins for, at a subsequent meeting, he announced to the others that the car was to be seized and put to use for a very special job: the liberation of Seán Mac Eoin from the bowels of British captivity.[17]

But, first, planning was key. With help from a sympathetic warden in Mountjoy, one of the many pair of eyes and ears so essential to the rebel underground, Collins:

…got all the local information about wardens, position of Military guards, police and auxiliary relief times. Seán McKeon had been instructed to get an interview on any complaint pretext, every morning at 10 a.m. with the Governor, and so be on the outside of three obstructing gates when an attempted rescue would be made.[18]

Taking the armoured car would be the first step in this complicated scheme. In preparation for this, Lynch procured some Dublin Corporation uniform caps for the IRA men assigned to the mission to wear inside the abattoir, which they did for five consecutive day beforehand, in order to keep the soldiers who came by complacent.

Paddy Daly

But there was still so much that could go wrong. Even if only one or two of the targets stayed inside the car, they could slam the door shut and deny the ambushers access. In addition, Lynch was aware that some of the IRA men involved had a tendency to shoot first and ask question afterwards. With his wife, sister and children in their house across from the abattoir, the last thing Lynch wanted was a stray bullet. To help put his mind at ease, Paddy Daly, the officer in charge of this step of the rescue, agreed that, once things began, he would remove the Lynch household upstairs and lock them in a bedroom.[19]

The only thing left to do…was do.

“Well, good luck,” Collins said as the men set forth, “but whatever happens, come back.”[20]


Daly and Mrs Lynch were watching through the window of the latter’s home as the armoured car stopped by the abattoir as expected on the 14th May 1921. What was not expected, but feared, was how the passengers had not all disembarked, putting the plan too gravely at risk to proceed. It would have to wait until the following morning….and then Mrs Lynch saw the remaining soldiers step out on to the pavement. Daly had turned to leave when Mrs Lynch shouted out, snapping his focus, and the plan, back on. He blew a whistle and the IRA men on standby rushed to perform their roles.[21]

“In less time than it takes to tell we had taken over the car,” described one participant, John Caffrey, proudly.[22]

British armoured car in Ireland, with soldiers nearby

Lynch would recall a more chaotic, bloodier scene in which a soldier reached for his firearm, only to be cut down by a bullet. Upon hearing the commotion, a second serviceman, acting as an orderly, dashed outdoors:

When he saw the guns in the hands of our men, he pulled up with a jerk. Unfortunately, another man behind him, not realising what was on, bumped into him, pushed him forward, and he emerged from the building, with his right hand down low on his thigh, steadying his butcher’s sheath. Our men told me afterwards that it looked as if he was in the act of pulling a gun, and they fired.[23]

Unfortunate, indeed; of the wounded pair, one would later expire in hospital. The rest of the soldiers quickly surrendered, allowing their vehicle to be boarded and then driven off at great speed. The whole incident, according to one eyewitness, had lasted for no more than ten minutes.[24]

To be continued in: Hanging by a Thread: Seán Mac Eoin and the Trial of his Life, 1921 (Part II)


[1] Mac Eoin, Seán (BMH / WS 1716, Part II), p. 181

[2] Ibid, pp. 168-70

[3] Ibid, pp. 171-4

[4] Ibid, pp. 176 -7

[5] Ibid, p. 180

[6] Irish Times, 04/03/1921

[7] Mac Eoin, Part I, p. 84

[8] Irish Times, 04/03/1921

[9] Mac Eoin, Part I, pp. 84-5

[10] Farrington, Ann (BMH / WS 749), pp. 2, 4-5

[11] Mac Eoin, Part II, pp. 183-5

[12] Maguire, James (BMH / WS 1439), pp. 33-4

[13] Noyk, Michael (BMH / WS 707), pp. 80, 85

[14] Stapleton, William James (BMH / WS 822), p. 51

[15] Mac Eoin, Part II, pp. 194-7

[16] Ibid, pp. 200-4

[17] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), pp. 123-5

[18] Leonard, Joe (BMH / WS 547), p. 16

[19] Lynch, p. 125

[20] Caffrey, John Anthony (BMH / WS 569), pp. 7-8

[21] Lynch, pp. 125-6

[22] Caffrey, p. 8

[23] Lynch, pp. 126-7

[24] Sunday Independent, 15/05/1921



Irish Times

Sunday Independent

Bureau of Military History Statements

Caffrey, John Anthony, WS 569

Farrington, Ann, WS 749

Leonard, Joe, WS 547

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

Mac Eoin, Seán, WS 1716

Maguire, James, WS 1439

Noyk, Michael, WS 707

Stapleton, William James, WS 822

Where No Plan Survives Contact with Your Ally: Limerick City and the Mid-Limerick Brigade in the Irish Revolution, 1916-21

Mutiny in the Ranks

Four months into the Truce between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and British forces in Ireland had passed since July 1921, and while the country overall was in a tentative peace, the same could not be said for the Mid-Limerick Brigade. Long the problem child of the IRA, the Brigade took a dysfunctional turn for the worse when its O/C, Liam Forde, received a message dated to the 1st November 1921, giving him notice that:

At a fully attended meeting of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions of the Mid-Limerick Brigade it was unanimously decided on that pending further action which they were about to take and which may effect [sic] their relations with the Mid-Limerick Brigade as presently constituted they will not attend any Brigade Council for the present.

The five signatures at the end showed the gravity of the situation: Martin Cooke, Michael Conway and John Clifford headed the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions respectively, making their threat to withdraw a plausible one. As for the other two signatories, neither Richard O’Connell nor Seán Carroll held rank at present, but both could claim a respectable war record: O’Connell had formerly led both the 4th Battalion and the Brigade’s Flying Column – earning him imprisonment in Spike Island, out of which he had escaped five weeks before – while Carroll had succeeded him as the column’s leader.

IRA Flying Column

However alarmed, Forde could not have been surprised; relationships within the Mid-Limerick Brigade had been sour ever since the Easter Week of 1916. Now three out of his four battalions were announcing their intent to break away; if permitted, the move could cripple the Brigade. Forde wasted no time in contacting the chain of command, the closest being Ernie O’Malley as O/C of the Second Southern IRA Division. When O’Malley’s attempts at mediation failed, the problem was moved further up to GHQ in Dublin, which dispatched its Deputy Chief of Staff, Eoin O’Duffy, to Limerick.

coloured-pictures-4The subsequent meeting was at least well attended, with the entire Brigade and battalion staff present, as was the Divisional O/C. Despite the floundering of his own efforts, O’Malley was a particularly useful addition, having spent time in Limerick as an IRA operative, and was able to fill O’Duffy in on some of the local context:

I learnt from Comdt. O’Mailley [alternative spelling] that the object of Nos. 2, 3 and 4 Batts. was to form a Brigade of their own. I took the opinion of the Officers of No. 1 Batt. in this matter, and they stated that it would be very difficult for them to carry on the fight without the co-operation of the other Battalions.

Of the four battalions present – there had been a fifth, until the Brigade reshuffle earlier in the year – only the 1st were content with how things stood, so they told O’Duffy. True, there had been some trouble before but that was water under the bridge. About the other three, it appeared that their threat to form their own brigade had, in fact, already happened a few weeks ago. The 1st Battalion – encompassing Limerick City – thus stood alone, a vulnerability underscored by how two of their arms dumps had been raided by men from the three separatist country units.

Patrick Street, Limerick (1910)

O’Duffy talked to the representatives from the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions, taking the time to deal with each separately before reaching a verdict. He found that they had all been motivated by anger against the 1st, whose officers dominated the Brigade’s upper echelons. In his report to GHQ, O’Duffy listed the primary bugbears:

  1. Brigade officers being largely from Limerick City and thus not appreciative of the conditions beyond.
  2. On the other side, rural men not understanding urban combat.
  3. The failure of the City Battalion, the 1st, to do its bit.
  4. A lack of support from the Brigade Staff and City Battalion to their country subordinates.
  5. Loose lips on Limerick City Volunteers, resulting in the frustration of operations in the county.
  6. An unequal and unfair distribution of weapons, with the three battalions besides the 1st losing out.
  7. That oldest of grievances – money, again at the expense of the country units.

While this was a lengthy list, the root cause could be boiled down to one constant: none outside the 1st Battalion had a good word to say about it. The sickly suspicion that had plagued Limerick City for the past few years appeared to have spilled out to the rest of the Brigade.[1]

Flag of the Limerick City Irish Volunteers upon its founding in 1914

‘A Peculiar Situation’

Controversy had long dogged the 1st Battalion; indeed, whether it had even existed past a certain point in time, at least in any meaningful sense, would be a matter of some confusion in the years to come. While drawing up a picture of the Mid-Limerick Brigade in 1936, the Advisory Committee of the Pensions Board asked what became of the 1st, for while they had records for all five battalions before 1919, post-1919 saw no reference to the City unit at all.

“It seems extraordinary to us here that, in one particular Brigade, you should have certain battalions such as 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th, and no 1st Battalion,” said one baffled Board member.

Limerick Volunteers and Cumann na mBan women, 1915, (murder victim James Dalton, standing third from the left)

As historical advisor, Forde was at hand with an explanation, albeit one that only scratched the surface of the controversy:

That is an old-standing fued [sic] in Limerick. It is a peculiar situation. That 1st Battalion dropped out. What happened was, it resulted from the 1916 Insurrection. Ernest Blythe came to Limerick, and the 1st Battalion was suspended. Then the 2nd Battalion sprung into existence in the city, and it formed the nucleus of the Mid-Limerick Brigade.

The 1st Battalion was never reinstated, and some time having passed, the members of this who were anxious to participate in the activities down here, merged into the 2nd Battalion. There was a certain amount of rivalry between the 1st and 2nd Battalions in Limerick. The 1st still functioned and carried out parades, etc., and were not recognised by Headquarters, and when the 1st Battalion disappeared the title of the second Battalion remained.

As with much in Ireland, it all came back to the Rising, a “matter much debated,” continued Forde. “In Limerick, a number of Battalions were mobilised, and went under arms to participate in the trouble, and because of the action of the superior officer, if you like, those prepared to fight were demobilised, not called upon to do so.”

“They had no fighting?” asked one of the Board.


1916 Memorial at Sarsfield Bridge, depicting Tom Clarke pointing at the Proclamation of Independence

Memories of Easter

And that was the crux of the problem that begat all the others. If the Rising had rallied the country together, its failure also threatened, conversely, to drive apart its participants – or participants they would have been, if not for the flurry of orders and countermands and counter-countermands that caused the majority of Irish Volunteers to retire without firing a shot. To put the issue to rest, the Executive of the Irish Volunteers appointed an investigatory committee which, after some delay, delivered its findings in March 1918.

Irish Volunteers

The Volunteers of Cork, Kerry and Limerick were relieved of responsibility for the débacle; considering the circumstances, they had had little choice in what they did, or did not, do. There was, however, one lingering point to be made about Limerick:

With regard to the surrender of arms, it is to be deprecated that at any time arms should be given up by a body of men without a fight. But we do not see that any good purpose will be served by any further discussion on the matter.[3]

Not that Michael Colivet, the commander of the Limerick City Regiment had had many options. The Easter Week of 1916 had begun miserably enough, with his subordinates trudging back to the city under weeping skies, their plans and hopes dashed by the decision to accept Eoin MacNeill’s instruction that their uprising was off over Patrick Pearse’s exhortation to press on.

Michael Colivet

Limerick seemed deserted, almost as if the place had forgotten about them, and not even the marching tune struck by the regimental band could raise their spirits, nor the lack of reaction from the British garrison disguise the fact that the occupying power retained control. A vote on the Tuesday by the officers to continue their ‘wait and see’ stance was confirmed by ten to six, though morale was not so depressed that they accepted British demands to hand over their weapons. However meagre the armoury, it was the only point of pride left.

The Volunteers only broke on the Friday, when it was clear that the enemy was poised to seize the arms anyway. Even then, Colivet and his staff decided to hand the guns over to the Lord Mayor of Limerick, not to the British Army directly.[4]

When this proved too subtle a distinction for the post-Rising inquiry committee, Colivet demanded a reconsideration, or at least a clear ruling on his conduct, as opposed to the tut-tutting and clicking of tongues in the first report. It was not merely a case of ego on Colivet’s part, for the original ambivalence left him open to accusations of dereliction in his duty, as noted in the sequel paper, issued by the Volunteer Executive in March 1918:

Commandant Colivet of Battalion 1 Limerick City has on behalf of self and said Battalion objected to above report out of grounds (1) that he was not furnished with particulars of evidence tendered to the Committee so as to enable him to meet any adverse evidence or charges, (2) that in consequence of (1) the report has, in his opinion, pronounced unjustifiable the surrender of arms by the Battalion at the period mentioned.

The Executive have considered the matter and desire to say in regard to No. 1 as the report has not condemned Commandant Colivet it was not necessary to furnish him with evidence. In regard to No. 2, the report made no pronouncement on this head.[5]

If Colivet had not been judged unworthy, then the Executive had not exactly given him a ringing endorsement either. It was thus unsurprising that when Ernest Blythe came to Limerick in July 1917, as part of his work in reorganising the Irish Volunteers, “a great deal of strained feeling between the officers” was still to be found.[6]

One Step Forward, Another Back

Sinn Féin postcard, 1917/8

Sinn Féin had just won its third parliamentary seat in East Clare, with its ranks swelled by the mass release of Rising prisoners. But, while Nationalist Ireland was moving ahead at an increasing speed, Limerick remained stuck in a rut, brooding over the missed opportunity of the past year, with the officers of its Volunteers doing no more than they had done – justified or not – on Easter Week. Though Blythe had no great desire to dwell on the past, he came round to the idea that the current leadership in Limerick had passed its expiration date.

“No appeals to them were of any use at the point,” he later wrote, indicating that he had at least tried.

When worthy efforts proved for naught – the start of a trend in Limerick – Blythe tried instead with a group of Young Turks, including Peadar MacMahon, Peadar Dunne and Jim Doyle – veterans of Dublin during the Rising – and those local Volunteers, such as Johnny Sweeney and Martin Barry, who were frustrated with the current inertia. Dismissing the 1st Battalion as a lost cause, it was agreed to set up one of their own – the 2nd.

Recruitment, with Blythe as a speaker, was successful in attracting a sizeable following of youths not previously connected to the Volunteers, enough to start a company:

We then fixed a place outside the city where they could drill, and Peadar McMahon arranged for a drill instructor for them. More men were got in, and ultimately elections of officers were held. A little later, on the outskirts of the city…I held another meeting and got a second Company established. A third meeting was held in a quarry on the outskirts of the city, not far from the railway station, and a third Company was established.

Clearly, there was a demand for Blythe to supply, even if the inductees were not always as committed as they were to their social duties. “Between sodalities and confraternities there was not so much as one night in the week in which everyone was free,” Blythe recalled with a sigh. “I do not suppose there is any city in Ireland which has so many religious societies as Limerick has.”

Church of St Mary, Limerick, with the old Cathedral of St Mary in the background (photo taken 1938)

Needless to say, Blythe and his allies did not seek permission from the pre-existing Volunteer staff; indeed, as Blythe initially took advantage of the rooms used by the 1st Battalion, it could be said that the 2nd was raised under false pretences. Regardless, the new group swelled to include four companies, sufficient to form the 2nd Battalion for real. The old and the new both marched in the parade in honour of Thomas Ashe, recently deceased from his hunger strike, with the 1st taking the lead and the 2nd – “which was rather bigger” – next in formation.

Despite their joint appearance, relations between the new battalions remained chilly, and Blythe was to ponder, with the wisdom of hindsight:

I am not sure if we did right in creating a new organisation; perhaps if we had continued to urge the existing officers to undertake some activity, our appeals, plus the changing temperature of the country, would have sufficed to induce them to make the moves that would bring them recruits and strengthen the movement.

Ernest Blythe

Maybe. Either way, the damage was done. When Blythe was offered a job in West Cork by the Gaelic League – an opportunity the cash-strapped Blythe could not refuse – some assumed that the 1st Battalion was behind it in order to remove a rival leader. Suspicion, to the point of paranoia, was now the order of the day. “It was a long time before there was the right feeling and proper discipline in Limerick,” wrote Blythe.[7]

Not that Blythe was entirely blameless. With Colivet struggling for his post-Rising reputation, Blythe saw fit to weigh in with a mocking piece of doggerel about the former’s performance to date:

The non-combatant Colonel of the non-combatant corps,

Was a-drilling of his regiment down by the Shannon shore,

Parading all the city streets dressed in his jacket green,

And saying in a martial tone the things he didn’t mean.

A fight broke out in Dublin and the Colonel’s courage shook.

He said: “I don’t believe in fighting and I think we’ve done enough,

We’ll beat the whole world at this noble game of bluff.”[8]

The Dalton Affair

Judging by subsequent mishaps, ‘right feeling and proper discipline’ were as elusive by the end of 1921 as it had been at the start. Nothing illustrates this better – if that is the appropriate word – then the case of James Dalton, gunned down outside his house on Clare Street, Limerick, on the 15th of May 1920. The party of assassins – numbering between four and six youths, according to witnesses – left nothing to chance, opening fire with revolvers at point-blank range on the 48-year-old man and continued to do so mercilessly after Dalton collapsed. Even when the assailants fled, one lingered long enough to shoot twice more into his victim’s prone back.[9]

Clare Street, Limerick

Anyone at a loss for a motive could have read one in the graffiti about the streets: A bullet is waiting for Dalton the spy. Word was that Dalton had been spotted leaving the house of a police detective at night.[10]

As Ireland slid into guerrilla warfare between the Irish Volunteers – rechristened the IRA – and Crown forces, murders such as Dalton’s would become all too frequent as the former made plain the penalty for those believed to be talking to the authorities. What made this case notable – besides its public viciousness – was that Dalton had also been a participant in the Limerick IRA. The insurgency had executed a traitor in its ranks, so it seemed, but, for a historian shifting through the various reminiscences of the time, that is not quite the full picture.

“Whisperings, underhand rumblings – all these things were taking place to blacken the character of the Executive of the 1st Battalion,” to which Dalton belonged, so described John Quilty. A fellow Volunteer, Quilty was called upon – ‘subpoenaed’, as he put it – to testify on Dalton’s behalf. Held over a shoe-shop in O’Connell Street, the courtroom may have been of a makeshift sort, but the consequences to Dalton should it deem him guilty of untoward motives were real enough. Indeed, Dalton had called the inquiry in the first place, desperate to clear his name lest his comrades take allegations of his disloyalty to their logical conclusion.

Dáil Court, photo taken in Westport Town Hall, Co. Mayo, 1920

As it was, Dalton was judged innocent. As it was, he was murdered all the same, and not just – according to Quilty – because of some ill-advised social call:

It is common property that certain members of the 2nd Battalion were anxious to dishonour him, or attribute dishonour to the 1st Battalion, by saying all kinds of things about him, which I feel were not correct.

“I believe,” wrote Quilty, years afterwards:

That the attempt and subsequent death of Jim Dalton was caused by certain members of the 2nd Battalion, who were suffering from a terrible hatred of the 1st and were anxious to put Dalton away in order to discredit the 1st Battalion.[11]

If true, then Dalton’s public slaying was not so much ‘in-house cleaning’ but an act of aggression between two hostile factions. If true: Quilty had been close enough to Dalton to act as a character witness, and it is understandable that Quilty would think the best of his late friend. He was not, however, the only one to believe that Dalton’s death had been not only a mistake but a crime.

Kevin O’Shiel

“Poor Jim was no informer,” insisted Kevin O’Shiel, who had made Dalton’s acquaintance while canvassing together in the South Armagh by-election of 1918. Adding to the confusion, O’Shiel blamed the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) for the slaying, or rather “an undisciplined group” within the secret society, without reference to Limerick’s internal issues.[12]

Which is not to say that the strife between the two battalions did not spill over into the IRB, their feud leaving few things in the local scene unscarred. Despite his own membership, Richard O’Connell, O/C of the 5th (Caherconlish) Battalion, did not think much of the Brotherhood, a disdain he partly attributed to who else belonged:

Most of its members in Limerick City belonged to the 1st Battalion. We did not look with high regard on the members of the 1st Battalion, and the IRB being identified with the 1st Battalion, we did not bother much about it either.

The one service O’Connell performed for the fraternity was luring out Martin Barry, one of the suspects, who just happened to be Quartermaster of the 2nd Battalion. “When Dalton was shot, the IRB was doing its best to trace the person or persons who had done the shooting,” O’Connell remembered.

Barry was a hard man to find, as befitting a guerrilla fighter, but O’Connell succeeded, allowing the IRB to arrest him, or so O’Connell described, making it seem like a Brotherhood, rather than an Army, affair. Perhaps lines were sufficiently blurred to make little difference. Barry endured a week of confinement before being released due to lack of evidence, leaving Dalton’s murder as one of the many lingering mysteries from the era.[13]

Ruffling the Surface

Clearly, there was very little that was straightforward in Limerick, even with a war on. Instead of focusing minds and rallying enemies together against a common foe, the conflict only exacerbated the one between the separate Limerick City battalions. “Between these two units relations were such that any concerted action by the Volunteers in the city was next to impossible,” remembered Jack MacCarthy, who had fled police crackdowns in his native East Limerick to take refuge in the city, one of the many IRA members ‘on the runs’.

image-2To his shock, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) dominated the streets in a way it had ceased to do elsewhere in Ireland, its blue-uniformed sergeants and constables swaggering about “with impunity, largely because of almost complete inactivity on the part of the Volunteers in Limerick City. Apart from two or three incidents of no great magnitude, this situation persisted up to the Truce.”[14]

Ernie O’Malley was to record a similar impression from his foray into the city in May 1921, as part of inspection duties on behalf of the IRA GHQ. This was despite the warnings of the Mid-Limerick Brigade O/C; too many soldiers about, too many spies, O’Malley was told. On the streets, he witnessed stop-and-searches by the RIC and military, conducted with kicks and the butt-ends of rifles for no other reason that O’Malley could fathom save the intoxication of its culprits. He later watched from his safe-house for the night as three men were dragged out on to the street and hauled away into lorries.

Mugshot of Ernie O’Malley, December 1920

All this was enough for O’Malley to write off the city for any contributions to the insurgency: “We would have to rely more on the material resources of Limerick than on the driving force of her officers,” who “did not seem to ruffle the surface of enemy occupation.” He seconded MacCarthy’s prognosis for this martial malaise: “Internal trouble: a row between our first and second battalions. It had meant jealously and bitterness; our effectiveness there suffered.” Though O’Malley toured the country extensively and appreciated the difficulties of the various Volunteers he encountered, the Limerick ones were singularly troubled, for which he had no solution.[15]

These dismissals were not entirely fair on the part of MacCarthy and O’Malley, for effort was made by some to ensure that their city was not entirely left out of the struggle for Irish liberty. Michael Stack joined the 2nd Battalion as soon as it was formed, taking part in the preliminary organising, training and gathering of weapons that defined much of 1919 for the burgeoning IRA.

Robert Byrne

More dramatically, in April 1919, he took part in the rescue of Robert Byrne from the hospital where he was recovering, under armed watch, from the hunger strike undertaken in protest at his imprisonment by the British authorities. Stack led the Volunteers posing as well-wishers for the other patients, but what was supposed to be a swift ‘in and out’ turned bloody when the policemen on duty reacted quicker than expected, one shooting Byrne in bed before Stack shot and wounded him in turn. Stack then gunned down another guard, Constable O’Brien, killing his victim this time, as Byrne was hustled out, successfully so, or so it seemed, for Byrne died of his own injuries later that night.

While far from a success, “this exploit was really the start of IRA activities in Limerick city,” according to Stack.[16]

Blood on the Streets

The subsequent imposition of martial law in Limerick allowed the 2nd Battalion another chance to buck British rule, this time in the form of a week-long general strike, organised by the Battalion staff in conjecture with the Trade Union Councils. Martial law was lifted as a result of the strike, both that and the rescue attempt being “a great impetus to the movement and was responsible for considerably increasing the strength of the 2nd Battalion,” which swelled from a hundred members to four hundred, providing enough for four companies.

British troops and a tank in Limerick as part of martial law, April 1919

Stack had been one of the only two participants in the rescue operation to carry guns, a sign of how rare they were, but raids on the homes of former soldiers in the British Army allowed the 2nd Battalion to accumulate more. So empowered, Stack led a party in waylaying Sergeant Wellwood, in February 1920, as the policeman was making his way to the William Street Barracks. Wounded by bullets, Wellwood still managed to reach the safety of the barracks’ gate before his assailants could seize his revolver. A second attempt was made on another RIC man in Thomas Street, with a similar result: though bloodied, the target made it to his lodgings in time to deprive the Volunteers of his weapon.

If the primary aim of these two attacks had been robbery rather than assassination, then an ambush on a mixed RIC-military patrol in O’Connell Street was specifically to pick off a particularly troublesome Sergeant Conroy. “The Battalion Commander did not issue any instructions to this effect but a few of us took it upon ourselves to watch him and, when an opportunity presented itself, we were to eliminate him,” as Stack put it.

Stack and another Volunteer opened fire from the corner of Cecil Street and then hurried into new positions to shoot again on the enemy patrol as it retreated to the William Street Barracks. Conroy was injured, enough for Stack to chalk it up as a win, though three passers-by were killed in a crossfire, which Stack blamed on the return-shots of the patrol.[17]

Gardai Station in William Street, Limerick, formerly the RIC barracks

Regardless of culpability, it was probably inevitable – between the civilian deaths and these ‘wildcat’ operations – that the Brigade O/C, Peadar Dunne would want to have a word with Stack:

[Dunne] severely admonished me for carrying out activities without any instructions from Brigade or Battalion Headquarters. He said that, by our actions, we had spoiled the chances of Brigade in carrying out much bigger engagements that they had in mind.

Considering how Stack thought “the Brigade and Battalion staffs were most inactive,” in contrast to how “a number of us were actively engaged in harassing the British forces in every possible way we could,” it was unlikely that he was impressed at such claims of ‘bigger engagements’ in the works. Refusing to come to heel on Dunne’s demand, Stack decided to leave for a busier warzone – East Limerick, perhaps, or elsewhere in Mid-Limerick outside the city. He ended up in Dublin, enlisting in the IRA there and finding a more fitting environment – and appreciative superiors – for his warrior talents.[18]

Webley revolver, of the sort used in the Irish War of Independence

Papering Over the Cracks

If discipline was to be prized in the Limerick IRA, even at the expense of personal initiative, then its command did little to set an example – or commands, rather, for the Volunteers in the city remained split between the two opposing battalions. The best that could be said was that the murder of James Dalton, while the nadir of their relationship, was at least not replicated or retaliated against; instead, a sullen kind of cold war lingered over the ranks.

Richard Mulcahy

An attempt to start over again was made in 1919, according to Morgan Portley, who attended a conclave of O/Cs from the five battalions in the Mid-Limerick Brigade, the 1st and 2nd included. Portley represented the 5th (Caherconlish) Battalion at the meeting, held in the Railwaymen’s Club at the corner of O’Connell and Hartstonge Streets, and presided over by no less than Richard Mulcahy, over from Dublin to give the GHQ stamp of approval for what transpired.

An election of Brigade staff was in order, and it would be Portley and Seán Carroll who would be acting as counters, by Mulcahy’s instructions. Mulcahy had already taken the pair aside to explain that, since:

There was, at this time, a dispute, between two city battalions and General Mulcahy pointed out that as Commandant Sean Carroll and myself belonged to battalions outside the city and had no connection with the dispute, we were in a neutral position and best suited to act as umpires.

Which was wise. In regards to the election, it was a simple enough affair:

We handed a piece of paper to each battalion representative with instructions to write the name of the candidate of his choice on the paper, which should then be folded. We collected and counted the votes and General Mulcahy announced the result for each vacancy. Commandant Peadar Dunne was elected Brigade O/C., Michael Doyle, Brigade Adjutant, and Martin Barry, Brigade Q.M.

All of whom were of the 2nd Battalion. As for their rivals:

The officers of the 1st Battalion, Limerick City, failed to secure any post on the brigade staff and, as a result, took no further part in the movement.

Barry would later come under suspicion for Dalton’s murder, so perhaps it was not just wounded pride on the part of the 1st that prolonged their standoffishness. Either way:

Regular Brigade and Battalion Council meetings were now held, but the 1st Battalion in Limerick City was not represented. The Brigade O/C., Peadar Dunne, gave considerable attention to the battalions in the county, but was more or less handicapped by the disunity in the city.[19]

George Clancy
George Clancy

Patrick Whelan would provide his own version of events, one more sympathetic to both battalions. An earlier attempt to bridge the divide had been tried in March 1918 and even made progress – up to the choice of Adjutant for the proposed consolidated battalion. Members of the 1st Battalion, including Whelan, wanted one of their own, George Clancy, while the 2nd pushed for its man, Joseph O’Brien. Since each candidate won the same number of votes, the issue was deadlocked, with neither side willing to climb down.

It was then that Mulcahy was summoned on behalf of GHQ. After a session with the 1st Battalion failed to dissuade its members from their choice of Clancy as Adjutant:

Mulcahy returned to Dublin and furnished his report to GHQ. On receipt of Mulcahy’s report, HQ immediately suspended each of the five companies [of the 1st], together with all battalion officers of the original battalion. At various periods in 1917, 1918 and 1919 several of these officers were arrested, but the battalion continued to function, carrying out route parades and drilling as usual and ignoring the suspension order of GHQ.

Michael O’Callaghan

Whelan was among those detained at His Majesty’s pleasure, being sent to Wormwood Scrubs in January 1920, along with a number of other officers from both battalions. Even if GHQ wanted nothing to do with the 1st, and others dismissed it as defunct, then members like Whelan at least shared in the suffering. Upon his release five months later, in May 1920, Whelan was approached by the Lord Mayor of Limerick, Michael O’Callaghan, who had hopes for a reconciliation, claiming that some of the 2nd were eager to bury the hatchet. Another wave of arrests in October 1920, including Whelan’s again, put a halt to any overtures, and Limerick City was left as rudderless as before when it entered the new year.[20]

A Narrow Escape

Which is not to say 1920 had seen nothing from Mid-Limerick, though anything of note was largely limited to outside Limerick City. The Brigade had expanded to include three more battalions: the 3rd (Castleconnell), the 4th (Adare) and the 5th (Caherconlish), overseen by a Brigade staff. Despite the status of the 1st as a nonentity in the eyes of GHQ, as well as its brother-battalions, the numbering system stayed the same, as described by Richard O’Connell:

The 2nd remained the 2nd; then the 3rd, 4th, and we were the 5th Battalion [Caherconlish]. That was what comprised the Mid-Limerick Brigade. The 1st Battalion was inactive, and therefore was ignored by the other units of the Brigade, but the 1st still constituted the 1st Battalion, although we tried to make the 2nd Battalion the 1st, with a corresponding change in the other numbers. It did not materialise just then, however, and the inactive 1st Battalion held its numerical identity.[21]

Recently released from prison and still wanted by the authorities for his seditious activities, an ‘on the run’ O’Connell was appointed O/C of the 5th, as part of which he led the attack on the Murroe RIC Barracks in January 1920. As with Stack and his escapades in Limerick City, this was not sanctioned by the rest of the Brigade command. Instead “we just thought of doing this, and we did it.”

‘Doing’ did not go so far as actually succeeding, for the mine that was intended to blast a hole through the wall of the building instead blew outwards, sparing the barracks from the worst of the impact and prompting the Volunteers to retreat after a few parting gunshots. Waging war on police fortifications proved easier when they had already been evacuated, as most of the ones in Ireland were by the time the IRA was ordered to raze whatever targets they could at Easter 1920.

The empty RIC barracks in Caherconlish, Ballyneety, Ballysimon and Murroe all went up in flames, but leaving the ones in Croon and Fedamore untouched due to their still being occupied by Crown forces. The Croon Volunteers instead turned their attention to the town courthouse, resulting in the deaths of two of their number when the pair were trapped inside the burning premises.

Burnt RIC barracks in Belgooly, Co. Cork

The kidnap of Major-General Cuthbert Lucas provided one of the more light-hearted episodes in the war. First captured in Co. Cork in June 1920, Lucas had been passed on to the Clare IRA and then to Caherconlish where the 5th Battalion held him in the house of a doctor who was away on holiday. Despite the circumstances, Lucas proved a genial captive and his captors amiable ‘hosts’, allowing him out for daily walks, albeit under armed guard.

O’Connell was with him, along with Mick Brennan of the Clare IRA, on one such occasion:

When we were out in the middle of the field, a big three-year-old bull attacked us, and we had to run for the ditch, the three of us. Lucas, who was a very lively man, got up on the ditch and we followed. While we were on the ditch, Mick Brennan pulled his gun, and the bull was underneath us. Mick was going to shoot the bull, and I said, “Stop.’ That bull won’t be paid for if he is shot.”

Respect for private property prevailed over self-preservation but it was only narrowly that the trio escaped the horns of the bull, enraged as it was by the interlopers in its domain. Lucas, for one, saw the funny side in a letter to his wife: “Imagine. Two officers of the Irish Army and a British General. A bull frightened us.”

Cuthbert Lucas and his wife, Poppy

When Lucas slipped out of a window one night, it was not treated by his captors as a particular loss. “No one was very sorry about his escape,” O’Connell later wrote. However likeable, “the business of holding him prisoner was a considerable lot of trouble.”[22]

The Flying Column

Readers of O’Connell’s reminiscences could be forgiven for not assuming there was a war on. The pace appeared about to quicken in September 1920, when the Brigade O/C decided it was time for a flying column to make an appearance in Mid-Limerick:

Brigadier [Peadar] Dunne came out to me. There were about ten of us “on the run” at the time and there was a share of lads from Limerick who were “on the run” also. He suggested that the Column would be formed. We formed the Column. I was appointed Column Commander by Dunne and given the power to act on my own initiative whenever I thought it necessary to do so without reference to him.

Before taking the fight to the British state, there was still the antipathy within to contend with:

At that time another move was made to link up the 1st Battalion. A meeting was held at a place called Drombane, attended by Colivet and Liam Forde from the 1st Battalion, and the rest of the Battalions were represented at it. At that time we were making arrangements to have an attack on a police car that used to go from Bruff to Limerick City, and Colivet did not like the idea. He went away without making any arrangements.

Failure almost worsened into disaster. The peace talks had been held in the back of a farmhouse in Drombane, the same hideout for the members of the newly-formed column. The day after the latest inter-battalion pow-wow that went nowhere, the sentries rushed into the farmhouse to warn the others of an incoming sweep through the area by British forces. They were already close to being surrounded, save for a single gap in the enemy cordon, through which the column hastily escaped.

IRA Flying Column

The plan for the ambush on the police car would have to be dropped but a new one was formed, to be done in Ballynagar, against another RIC vehicle that was foolish enough to be taking the same route each morning. As good Catholics, the column men first made confession to the sympathetic parish priest of Fedamore and then assembled by the roadside, a hay-bogey ready to be pushed into the path of the incoming lorry. Then the attack would be sprung. But first, the Volunteers paused to permit a pony and trap through, inadvertently allowing the lorry, coming up closely behind, to drive past before the hay-bogey could be used to stop it.

“They got clean away,” O’Connell lamented. Also “at that time an order was in force that we were not to fire on any enemy forces without giving them the option of surrendering, by calling on them to surrender. This order was issued by the Brigade” – noble, perhaps, but hardly practical in a hit-and-run engagement.

RIC patrol on Crossley Tenders

Success – of sorts – was finally achieved on the 10th November 1920, at Grange, in partnership with the East Limerick Brigade Column. The former lined the wall on the west side of the road, with its Mid-Limerick counterpart opposite it on the eastern side. Also present was a company of local Volunteers, overlooking a bend in the road from a hill, though the limited range of their shotguns would achieve little except noise.

O’Connell could not see the British patrol when it appeared but knew from the sounds that it consisted of more than the anticipated lone motor – about ten lorries, he guessed. Also heard was the single gun-crack, followed by several more from the Volunteers closest to the leading two vehicles in the convoy, and then every IRA man who could was firing away, prematurely so, before all the targets could come into view.

A whistle-blast from the East Limerick-held side signalled withdrawal, for it was now evident that the ambushers were outnumbered. O’Connell left behind five of his column who were waiting in a cottage down the road, unaware of the retreat, but he remembered in time to hurry over and alert them. The two columns separated, each unit making their way back to their respective territories.[23]

grange-ambush-memorialStepping Up

As with much of the war, the 1st Battalion was unrepresented in the Mid-Limerick Column; by its own choice, too, if the behaviour of Colivet at Drombane is anything to go by. A notable exception was Liam Forde, “the only one out of the 1st Battalion that was anxious to fight,” recalled O’Connell. While the two men would become bitter rivals when O’Connell helped lead the schism from Forde’s leadership of the Brigade in late 1921, O’Connell was willing to give the other his due in this, at least: “He came to the Column and he said, ‘I want to remain with the Column’. He remained with us then.”[24]

Which was only to be expected, given how Forde had been in the thick of things from the start. In Dublin during the start of Easter Week in 1916, Forde had had a front-row seat to the confusion that doomed the Rising. When he suggested to Seán Mac Diarmada that, considering the state of things, their enterprise be cancelled, the other man had flown into a rage.

Seán Mac Diarmada

The next morning, on Easter Sunday, the pair read together Eoin MacNeill’s fateful commanding order in the Irish Independent, which only made Mac Diarmada angrier – and more determined, walking all the way to Liberty Hall, accompanied by Forde, to consult with the rest of his militant coterie. Forde breakfasted with Tom Clarke, James Connolly and Éamonn Ceannt – not something everyone could boast of – before making his way back to Limerick, carrying Patrick Pearse’s instructions to the rest of the Irish Volunteers there to “hold yourself in readiness for further orders.”

Limerick’s ultimate role – or lack of – would have been all too well known but, lest his readers deem Forde a shirker:

I would point out that I was one of the six members of the [Limerick Volunteer] council who strongly advocated taking part in the fight for freedom. I also strongly opposed the surrender of arms. I personally did not surrender my rifle…I am aware that Commandant Colivet, in his statement to the Pensions Board, referred to me as the one and only exception who did not comply with the order for the surrender of arms.

Forde’s rifle, and those of six other Volunteers which he got his hands on, would finally see action in the service of the Mid-Limerick flying column.[25]

Rifles of the sort used in the Irish War of Independence

Forde stayed with the 1st Battalion until February 1921 when, concluding that the regiment was a ‘dead letter’, he defected to the 2nd. The refusal of his former comrades in the 1st to work with his new ones in the 2nd had been frustrating him for a while – “it serves little purpose to set out the reasons put forward by the 1st Battalion officers for their attitude in this manner,” he wrote with a sigh – despite his own efforts at healing the breach. Soon after the switch, he was promoted to the Brigade staff, a meteoric rise in recognition of his long-time commitment – or perhaps because of a dearth of talent and enthusiasm otherwise.[26]

As a case in point: In an interview between Peadar MacMahon and Richard Mulcahy in 1936, the subject of Limerick and its internal mishaps was touched upon, in particular the short-lived tenure of Michael de Lacy as Brigade O/C. MacMahon briefly served as an IRA organiser in the city, while Mulcahy had had his own experiences there, with both having certain choice words to say:

Mulcahy: Surely De Lacy had no guts or drive in him.

Peadar McMahon
General Peadar MacMahon, in the uniform of the Irish Army

MacMahon: He had no drive in him; I don’t know anything about his guts. I think he was the laziest man I ever met. I had occasion to visit him in a house a couple of times when he was on the run. He had letters from GHQ and he never bothered replying to them. He wouldn’t give you a decision on anything. He was a nice, pleasant man but that was all…I don’t know how he was ever appointed because he really was the laziest man I ever knew.[27]

Under Threat

Certainly, an officer’s life brought its share of risk as well as responsibility, as shown by the arrest of the Brigade O/C, Peadar Dunne, in March 1921. Forde stepped up as his successor and not a moment too soon, for the future of the Mid-Limerick Brigade was hanging in doubt:

When I took over command I found that things were not too happy with the Brigade in its relationship with GHQ, and Headquarters were about to insist that the Brigade would merge with and form part of the East Limerick Brigade.[28]

This had been under discussion for some time. The shared ambush at Grange had done little to endear the Mid-Limerick Brigade with its eastern neighbour, and the continuous state of disarray by the former made some wonder if it was worth the bother.

Seán Wall

On the 12th January 1921, the Vice-Commander of the East Limerick Brigade wrote to his O/C, Seán Wall, with a copy earmarked for GHQ, reviewing the current state of the war. The Brigade had accomplished twelve engagements against Crown forces in the previous year, not including those that had fallen through for whatever reason but nonetheless attempted. It was an impressive record, which the author put down to East Limerick being the first area in Ireland to form a flying column.

In contrast, continued the Vice O/C:

As far as we know, there has been scarcely a military activity of any consequence in two Brigade areas adjoining ours – Mid Limerick and West Limerick. Two such inactive areas on our borders are a danger to us in our operations and I therefore respectfully make the following suggestions –

(a) That three or four Battalions of West Limerick Brigade nearest to us be included in our Brigade.

(b) That all Battalions in Mid-Limerick between us in the city be included in our Brigade.

(c) That all arms, ammunition and men in these districts be placed at our disposal so that the burdens and trials experienced by the civil population consequent on military operations be equally distributed over the whole county.

(d) That, as an alternative to the foregoing suggestions, East Limerick be appointed Headquarters for the whole county and city and that the Brigade be empowered to spread the offensive operations over the whole county and city and to organise the men of the county, to use their arms to the best advantage.

This proposal was nothing less than the dissolution of not one, but two brigades and their takeover by another. A bold move, but the Vice-O/C was “of opinion that they will be quite willing to co-operate with us if we are commissioned by GHQ to approach them.”[29]

A Clean Sweep

Actually, the Mid-Limerick Brigade was not, or at least not with Forde as its new O/C:

I wrote requesting Headquarters to stay its hand and give me a chance of tightening up the general looseness that was so apparent in the carrying out of the duties of the Brigade. My request was granted and with the proverbial ‘New Broom’ energy I set to work.

The début for this refreshed policy was again in conjuncture with East Limerick as part of a planned attack on a Black-and-Tan squad, dubbed the ‘Green Hornets’ at Shraharla Chapel, in May 1921. Forde and about fourteen other men from his Mid-Limerick column had reached the main road, at the prearranged site near the chapel, when the would-be ambushers were instead surprised by two British military lorries appearing from around the turn in the road, each filled with soldiers, followed by five more – or so Forde described. Others remembered four vehicles altogether. Either way, the Irishmen were outnumbered and outgunned; the only factor in their favour being that the other party seemed equally off-guard:

I can never understand why the enemy did not rush our small unit; it might be due to a faint-hearted officer, or, perhaps, they were not in a position to gauge our numerical strength.

A running-battle ensued, as the column men let off shots to cover their retreat to the chapel, where their East Limerick allies should be waiting, while the soldiers kept up volleys of their own. Two Volunteers were killed, with a couple more captured, before the rest made it to where some cover gave them the chance to turn and hold their ground. With the British now caught in the open and pinned down, the IRA managed to slip away.

IRA men

Losses had been suffered, but it could have been worse in Forde’s view. Besides:

I think it is only fair to say that, while my name is not mentioned in connection with this engagement in “Limerick’s Fighting Story” [book, first published in the 1940s], there are plenty living witnesses to verify that it was I who marshalled and led the column in this engagement, and it was I who made all the arrangements for the bringing of the column into the East Limerick area.

(Officially, the column was commanded by Seán Carroll after O’Connell’s arrest earlier in the year. Carroll only appears in passing in Forde’s account; to judge by comments like the one above, Forde was sensitive to his portrayal and frequency in the historical record compared to that of others.)

IRA men

Contact at last having been made with the East Limerick IRA, the two columns billeted in Lackelly, with the intent of carrying out the original plan against the ‘Green Hornets’. These Tans had taken a page out of the insurgency’s book and patrolled on bicycles in a flying column of their own, and it was this that enabled the ‘Hornets’ to surprise four Volunteers – two from Mid-Limerick, the other pair from the East – in a farmyard on the morning of the intended ambush and cutting them down in a flurry of bullets.

Forde and sixteen others hurried to the sounds of gunfire, where the ‘Hornets’ were exchanging shots with another IRA sub-group, this one under Carroll’s command. Carroll would later lead with Richard O’Connell a breakaway faction from Forde ‘s authority as Brigade O/C but, for now, there was only the struggle together to survive.


The combined Irish numbers had the Tans cornered in a field of uncut hay. Forde downed a foe with one shot, broke the pin of his rifle in attempting another, and then found that the man next to him had a gun-jam of his own. Hoping to bluff his way to victory, Forde:

…then asked the enemy to surrender, but the reply was “No b….. surrender”. All this happened in a split second, and I am prepared to swear as to the truth of this statement, as it sounds far-fetched. The enemy, realising that there was something amiss, rushed our position.

As it was just Forde and two others holding the line at that particular point, and with one working rifle between them, the trio had no choice but to hurry aside and let the Tans break through. Bloodied and spent, both sides withdrew to lick their wounds and count their dead – six altogether on the Irish side from the two engagements.[30]

Murroe Memorial Cross, dedicated to War of Independence dead from the Mid and East Limerick Brigades, located in Murroe village, Co. Limerick

Out and In and Out of Harmony

Its excursion done, the Mid-Limerick column pulled back to its area. While its fortunes had been no better than mixed, that things had happened at all was enough for Forde to conclude:

…having filled key positions here and there with men of the right calibre, the work of the Brigade ran smoothly and in a short time we had the good will and respect of GHQ.[31]

Which was perhaps a trifle optimistic. GHQ was niggardly in its respect and rarely bothered with good will if the opposite could be given. When Forde led an attack on Fedamore RIC Barracks on the night of the 21st April 1921, by luring out the policemen and then opening fire with revolvers and shotguns, the IRA succeeded in wounding three and killing a fourth, so the report to GHQ read.

Mulcahy, however, was unimpressed.

“There does not seem to be any reason why this operation should not have been a much more finished piece of work,” he wrote back in his role as IRA Chief of Staff:

Events may occur which will prevent an actual operation, but there is no reason at all any planning of operation should not have a perfect finish, and I want you to give and to see that your Officers give particular attention to this. Slovenly or incomplete plans mean work in which there is little satisfaction, and they are very bad from the training and discipline and every other point of view.[32]

But then, condescending and irritated was how Mulcahy generally talked to his subordinates, particularly those in IRA units that had not, in his view, been carrying their share of the load. Still, by this time, there were reasons for the Mid-Limerick Brigade to be confident in catching up: the 1st-2nd Battalion rivalry had finally been put to rest in April 1921, with an agreed merger of the two units at the Catholic Commercial Club in Barrington Street. This reduced the battalions from five to four, which were renamed accordingly.

Cathal Brugha

The new start brought a second wind, with a number of bridges between Co. Limerick and Clare blown up by the Mid-Limerick Brigade engineers; one of whom, Robert de Courcy, went so far as to draw up plans for a gun large enough to hurl bombs. Parts were surreptitiously taken out of Limerick Power Station and put together at the Fianna Hall. When the scratch-built cannon was judged ready, Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha from GHQ were among those in attendance of its demonstration at Killonan.

The gun was fired – and promptly exploded, sending a metal fragment into the face of one onlooker, breaking his teeth and almost killing him.[33]

‘An Attitude of Revolt’

Eoin O’Duffy

If no plan survives contact with the enemy, then Limerick was where none remained upon meeting your ally. The improvements in the months before the Truce of July 1921 were not enough to placate some in the Mid-Limerick Brigade, namely the heads of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions (formerly the 3rd, 4th and 5th respectively, before the 1st and 2nd ones amalgamated) announced their decision at the start of November 1921 to withdraw from the Brigade and form their own.

Since there were no guarantees that the Truce would hold, and bloodshed between Crown forces and the Irish Republican soldiers not resumed, this partitioning would put the war effort in this corner of Ireland in grave peril, so reported Eoin O’Duffy:

If the City Batt. were cut off from the surrounding country Batts….the former would be considerably hampered in carrying out operations against the enemy, particularly as the new Brigade would be very likely be out of harmony with the City.[34]

Not that the country units would perform much better, in O’Duffy’s scathing view:

From what I have seen of them, I believe that without Limerick City control, these Batts. would become mobs. They certainly would not enforce discipline, when they have shown so little respect for discipline themselves.[35]

Which, for a martinet like O’Duffy, was the ultimate crime. This perhaps coloured his dismissal of the reasons cited for the mutiny, which included a disconnect between the Volunteers of Limerick City and those in the countryside, and an unequal treatment of the two demographics, with the urban 1st Battalion keeping a disproportionate share of the guns available. All lies or exaggeration, the Deputy Chief of Staff informed his colleagues in GHQ. While all the Brigade staff had expressed their willingness to step down to diffuse the situation, “I am satisfied, and the Div. Comdt. [Ernie O’Malley] agrees with me, that none of the Brigade Officers could be efficiently replaced.”

Ernie O’Malley

Which sounds like a very different O’Malley who left Limerick convinced that nothing useful was to be found there. Culpability instead fell on the Brigade separatists, against whom O’Duffy recommended the harshest of measures: the O/Cs of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions to be stripped of rank, dismissed from service or, at minimum, have their positions ‘considered’. As for Richard O’Connell and Seán Carroll, they were to “be expelled from the army in ignominy, and their names read on parade.”

O’Duffy was evidently of the ‘justice not just done but seen to be done’ school of thought. He conceded that “the recommendations made above may appear drastic,” but it was for the best, for the malcontents “have been most unscrupulous in their allegations, and even when allegations were clearly disproved, they still maintained an attitude of revolt.” All of which placed “them in the same category as the enemy.”[36]

Limerick coat of arms, whose Latin motto translate to ‘An ancient city well-versed in war’.

But then, this was Limerick, and the distinction between friend and foe was not always an obvious one.


[1] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘Mid Limerick Brigade. Letter from Intelligence Officer, Mid Limerick Brigade to Director of Information, with related material’, IE-MA-CP-04-30, pp. 3-5

[2] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks , Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Mid Limerick Brigade GHQ’, MA/MSPC/RO/133, pp. 52-4

[3] Gubbins, James A. (BMH / WS 765), p. 34

[4] Ibid, pp. 31-2

[5] Ibid, p. 35

[6] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 76

[7] Ibid, pp. 76-9

[8] University College Dublin Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 65

[9] Limerick Chronicle, 18/05/1920

[10] Limerick Leader, 17/05/1920 ; Quilty, John (BMH / WS 516), p. 16

[11] Quilty, pp. 17-9

[12] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part V), pp. 147-8

[13] O’Connell, Richard (BMH / WS 656), pp. 37-8

[14] MacCarthy, Jack (BMH / WS 883), p. 67

[15] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 401-2

[16] Stack, Michael J. (BMH / WS 525), pp. 2-5

[17] Ibid, pp. 5-7

[18] Ibid, p. 11

[19] Portley, Morgan (BMH / WS 1559), pp. 6-7

[20] Whelan, Patrick (BMH / WS 1420), pp. 15-6

[21] O’Connell, pp. 10, 13

[22] Ibid, pp. 13-6

[23] Ibid, pp. 17-21

[24] Ibid, p. 17

[25] Forde, Liam (BMH / WS 1710), pp. 11-3

[26] Ibid, p. 17

[27] Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 63

[28] Forde, p. 17

[29] MacCarthy, pp. 133-5

[30] Forde, pp. 17-23

[31] Ibid, p.

[32] Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/38, pp. 86-7

[33] Whelan, pp. 17-8

[34] ‘Mid-Limerick Brigade (a) (b) (c)’, Ref. No. A/0739, p. 5

[35]Ibid, p. 8

[36] Ibid, pp. 6-8



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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Forde, Liam, WS 1710

Gubbins, James A., WS 765

MacCarthy, John, WS 883

O’Connell, Richard, WS 656

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Portley, Morgan, WS 1559

Quilty, John J., WS 516

Stack, Michael J., WS 525

Whelan, Patrick, WS 1420


Limerick Chronicle

Limerick Leader

Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks

Michael Collins Papers

Military Service Pensions Collection

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

The Enemy/Friend of my Friend/Enemy is my ????: The Intelligence War in Co. Meath, 1920-1

Secret Procedure

The facts of the case with regard to the shooting of Sergeant Thomas Keighary were not immediately clear, at least not to the reporters enquiring at Navan Police Barracks, Co. Meath, save for the basics: shortly after 11 pm on the 1st December 1920, the summons for spiritual assistance reached Father O’Reilly, who hurried to Kilcarne village and delivered the last rites to the wounded policeman. Keighary died shortly afterwards, the victim of friendly fire when a lorry from the British Army drove towards a police stop-point at Kilcarne.

British military on a Crossley Tender

The policemen on duty had hailed them to halt, while the soldiers on board the vehicle called out at the same time, but it was dark, with heavy rain further obscuring the view between the two groups, leading to gunshots being fired. Sergeant Keighary was hit in the abdomen, fatally so, and his body removed to Navan Barracks.

A further victim was Richard Seery, whose grocery shop adjoined the scene. A stray bullet caught him, though his injuries were slight. Reporting on the incident, the Meath Chronicle wrote of how:

Residents in the Kilcarne district say they heard at least half a dozen shots, and on looking out, saw some flashes…There are marks of bullets in the door of Mr Seery’s premises, and also under the window.

Needless to say, “the people were very much alarmed.”

Keighary had had twenty years of service in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), during which he married and had a child. He was by all accounts a popular man, so his death was mourned by many as a tragedy. Still, it was not an unusual occurrence in itself: Ireland was a country at war between the Crown authorities and the Volunteers of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), putting RIC personnel, as upholders of the former, on the front-lines, regardless of likeability.

RIC policemen

What was unusual was the difficulty in ascertaining exactly the circumstances behind this latest slaying. When contacting Kilcarne Barracks about the inquest into Keighary’s death, reporters from the Meath Chronicle were told that the policemen there knew nothing, while Navan RIC Barracks informed them that it was a military matter, not theirs. The pressmen went accordingly to the Navan Workhouse, where the British Army was garrisoned, only for the officer on duty to say he knew nothing about any inquiry.[1]

One was eventually held, on the 4th December 1920, at the Navan Workhouse, though the Meath Chronicle only learnt of the date, time and location from a relative of the deceased who had come from Galway to attend. Confidence in the official process was not helped when the journalists arrived at the Workhouse, only to be refused entry on the grounds that the inquiry would be a restricted affair.

workhouseBut at least it was held at all, and the earthly remains of Thomas Keighary could afterwards be sent to rest in his native soil in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. A cortège of soldiers and RIC men followed for some distance the motor-hearse carrying their fallen comrade, accompanied by a number of civilians as a tribute to the sergeant’s popularity.

Still, the Meath Chronicle wrote:

The circumstances of the fatal occurrence at Kilcarne are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, as far as the public are concerned, owing to the secret procedure adopted at the inquiry.

All that was available was the official version: that British soldiers travelling by lorry came across their RIC allies in Kilcarne, leading to a deadly misunderstanding, an exchange of shots and the death of the luckless Keighary. Given the state of the country, it was not an implausible story.[2]

Cop Killer

Eugene-brattonAn alternative version was not committed to paper until 1951, almost three decades later, and it was only in 2003 that the Bureau of Military History made publically available its archive of first-hand accounts from the turbulent period. One was Eugene Bratton’s, an RIC constable stationed in Navan, Co. Meath, on that fateful night on the 1st December 1920.

Bratton was on duty in the dayroom of the police barracks when his superior, Sergeant Johns, entered, asking for help in the case of a dispatch rider in the British Army whose motorbike had broken down in Kilcarne. Bratton thought it odd that Johns did not go to the soldiers in Navan since it was their colleague who were in need of assistance, but gamely offered to drive them to Kilcarne, only to be rebuffed by Johns, who wanted their usual driver to do so. The driver was duly found, and Johns sent word to Sergeant Keighary, who was out patrolling the town, to report to the barracks.

Bratton did not mention in his Bureau Statement whether he accompanied Johns, Keighary and the other policemen from the barracks in the drive to Kilcarne and what unfolded there: they arrived to find no dispatch rider and, when the two military lorries appeared – so Bratton described – Johns stepped into the glare of their headlights and fired his revolver, provoking the exchange of shots that resulted in Keighary’s death.

All of which matches the official account reported at the time, except that, in Bratton’s opinion: “I believe this was a frame-up with the military – if they were military at all – to dispose of [Keighary].”

c1940139Ultimately, we will never know for sure. One could agree with Bratton’s suspicion, especially given the evasive nature of the military inquiry into the incident, and see malign intent in how “there did not seem to be any reason why Sergeant [Keighary] should be especially called in and detailed for this job” by Johns. Another historian could question the wisdom of Johns engineering such a hypothetical set-up, given that there was no guarantee of Keighary being hit, especially in the dark, no more than Johns, who would have to have been incredibly reckless or stupid to provoke a gun-fight with himself on the front line.

As for a motive, assuming the death was indeed an inside-job, Keighary was, according to Bratton, in cahoots with the local IRA, despite their two organisations being mortal foes. Permits were needed at the time for use of a car, so Keighary would steal the relevant paperwork from the County Inspector’s office and pass it on, stamped and ready for use, to the enemy.[3]

As betrayals go, it was relatively tame, especially how much more was being dared by other RIC members – Bratton among them. Spies were a constant thorn in the side of the Navan Volunteers as well, stymieing many of its operations. Suspecting one individual in particular, Bratton passed on the name to Seán Boylan, O/C of the Meath IRA Brigade, who knew all too well the problem of loose lips.[4]

Stopped in their Tracks

It was just one of the many hassles with which Boylan had to contend. Responsibility for waging war against the Crown authorities – particularly in the forms of the British Army and the RIC – in Meath lay with him, as were the journeys to Dublin to report to GHQ on the progress made so far. Unlike some more independently-minded brigades in the country, Meath had always enjoyed a civil relationship with the central leadership. When Boylan arranged a meeting of Meath officers in December 1920, it was attended by J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, visiting from Dublin on behalf of the IRA GHQ as its Assistant Chief of Staff.

J.J. O’Connell (in the uniform of the Irish Free State)

Presiding over the session, held in the old Workhouse in Devlin, O’Connell took the lead:

…explaining the purpose of the meeting, stressed the necessity for the immediate consideration and preparation of plans for attacks on enemy patrols and barracks in the brigade area, so as to relieve pressure by enemy forces in Cork and elsewhere.

It was not as if the Meath IRA had been idle; indeed, it had pulled off a spectacular coup four months ago, in September 1920, with the capture and destruction of Trim RIC Barracks. But there was the big picture to consider, as O’Connell stressed, and Meath could not be resting on its laurels while other counties like Cork or Dublin bore the weight of the national struggle.

5ccfc9dbe03c6d4694fa8047c0ee7881-the-wild-geese-ireland-To help facilitate this new phase, an inventory of all the guns and ammunition available to the Brigade would be drawn up, with its Volunteers trained in the making and use of home-made explosives. Previous seizures of police outposts in Meath had been accomplished by surprise and deception; from now on, the IRA was to have another weapon in its arsenal, one to help it go toe-to-toe with Crown forces.

Which was all good in theory. To put this into practice, two operations would be launched simultaneously on the night of the 8th January 1921: the first by the 5th (Oldcastle) Battalion against the local RIC Barracks, and the other by the 6th (Navan) Battalion with an ambush on a British patrol.

Both attempts fell through due to similar reasons, according to Boylan.

He had taken care in ensuring that the two units were sufficiently armed for their assigned targets, both in equipment and information. By now ‘on the run’ from his home in Dunboyne, Boylan based himself in the Oldcastle area, allowing him to preside over a couple of meetings where plans for the Oldcastle assault were finalised. Two land-mines were manufactured in the meantime, the ideal tools for blowing through walls. These were carried by horse and trap, escorted by fifty or so Volunteers from the 5th Battalion, all equipped with shotguns and buckshot cartridges, as they made their way from Bollies village towards Oldcastle.

Former RIC Barracks in Oldcastle, Co. Meath

Two priests intercepted them with the shocking news that the RIC garrison was ready and waiting for them, as were British soldiers and an armoured car, on which a machine-gun was mounted. All of which was considerably more than the battalion was prepared for, and so a timely withdrawal was decided on as the best policy.

Still, while it could have been worse:

This was a great blow to the morale of the Volunteers when they realised that the enemy had such first-hand knowledge of their movements. It was thought then that the information was supplied by someone within the ranks of the IRA.

If Boylan had any suspicions as to who this informer was, he kept them to himself when composing his BMH Statement. As for the second debacle of the night, however, he knew where to point the finger.[5]

Spy Fever

In preparation for the ambush in Navan, Boylan had given two hundred buckshot cartridges – no small amount in a war where every bullet counted – to Thomas Duffy, Adjutant to the 6th Battalion. Not only did these never reach the rest of the unit, the intended mission was called off when the Navan Volunteers, waiting in position for the enemy patrol to appear, received word from a local man called Quilty that Boylan had come by his house to cancel everything.

IRA men

This came as a surprise to Boylan when he learnt of it, since he had never as much as stepped foot in Quilty’s residence. It was not until much later in the year, in November 1921, that Boylan was able to hold an inquest into what had happened in Navan that night. When confronted with his failure to pass on the cartridges, Duffy admitted culpability. Of the many thorns in Boylan’s side, Duffy was a particularly persistent embedded one:

Time and again I tried to persuade the officers of Navan (or 6th) Battalion to drop Duffy and have nothing to do with him, but they would not take my advice.

The only question in Boylan’s mind was whether Duffy’s antics were the result of incompetence or something darker:

His father, with whom he lived, was an ex-RIC man, and I had a suspicion then that both Duffy and his father were in constant touch with the RIC in Navan and elsewhere.

Boylan’s distrust appeared to be vindicated by a letter he received from a friendly policeman in Navan, Constable McGarrity, who named Duffy as among the informants in the area during this period. McGarrity, as he explained in writing, had:

Opened Sergeant Neilan’s box on some Sunday about five months prior to the Truce [11th July 1921] and discovered a typewritten letter signed Thomas Eamon Duffy, and initiated in manuscript ‘T.D.’. Owing to the fact that Neilan might come in at any moment, I was too nervous to read the letter through, but I noticed it contained information about the shooting of policemen to take place at a future date.

Sergeant Neilan, according to McGarrity, would send a subordinate to Duffy’s father with banknotes, presumably as payment. That is assuming that McGarrity’s revelation is accurate – even Boylan expressed reservation about that. If nothing else, it shows the elusivity of truth and trust, with one participant in the war breaking ranks to inform an enemy about another enemy in the latter’s camp, who was passing information to the former’s side.

Controlling who knew what would bedevil the Meath Brigade to the end, such as during another attempt by the 5th Battalion in February 1921, this time in ambushing a RIC patrol near Oldcastle. Owing to miscommunication, this mission was delayed, which was just as well:

For, next day, they received information…that the RIC and Tans had actually taken up positions the night before, behind the walls from which the attack was to have been carried out.

To Boylan:

It was obvious that the enemy were well informed and that the information was supplied from within the IRA organisation.[6]

Little wonder, then, “around this time a ‘spy’ chasing fever had set in in Volunteer circles,” as described by David Hall, a member of the Dunshaughlin IRA Company. “It was a regular affair to read in the papers that men had been found with labels attached to them which read ‘Spies and Informers Beware’.”[7]

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

‘A Profound Sensation’

One such incident was in the early hours of the 27th March 1921, when Frank Dooner was called out of his cottage near Kilberry, four miles from Navan, by a group of men who then shot him several times in the stomach. For added measure, Dooner was bludgeoned in the head with the butt-end of a revolver, so much that gun-splinters were imbedded in his scalp. The assassins then fled, leaving behind spent cartridge cases, a piece of paper bearing the words ‘Convicted Spy; let informers beware’ and their victim for dead.

Which, as it turned out, Dooner was not, dragging himself back to his cottage, where his sister found him in bed that morning. She promptly called an ambulance to take her brother to Meath County Infirmary, but the wounds to his abdomen and head were grave enough for him to be transferred to a Dublin hospital. Though the Meath Chronicle could not say for sure whether Dooner would pull through, it was believed that, given that he had made it thus far, he would do so indeed.


The occurrence has caused a profound sensation in the district. Dooner’s aged father is a patient in the Navan Union Hospital and is prostrated with grief as a result of the dreadful occurrence. No information is available as to whether Dooner is able to identify his assailants or to give an adequate description of them, or, as to whether he is in a position to point a motive for the deadly attack made on him.[8]

Seamus Finn

Given that the assailants in question had already supplied a motive, via the paper left at the scene, the newspaper was perhaps being a little naïve, if not just coy. Unlike Boylan, Seamus Finn, the Adjutant of the Meath IRA Brigade, did not think the leakages responsible for the arrests and convictions of his fellow Volunteers were originating from the inside, instead blaming stray gossip and idle talk that were overheard, pieced together and delivered by those willing to deal with the Crown forces.

For these ‘touts’, Finn had only cold rage:

Whether these spies or informers were doing this work for payment or to prove their loyalty to Britain made no difference to us…Careful watch was kept on the movements of these people and, in some cases, they were actually seen to contact the enemy. Raids were made on the mails and certain sources of information were taped in an effort to get complete evidence in each case.

Finn counted the number of resultant executions as being ten, with twelve other suspects who were left untouched due to the inconclusiveness of their guilt. He assured his readers that “we were very scrupulous and conscientious in this matter and the case had to be clearly proven before the death penalty was sanctioned.”

IRA men

To the extent that one believes this is a matter for the individual historian. Not all capital punishments were competently applied, as Finn lamented one case which had:

…an extraordinary sequel. The convicted spy was taken out and the execution party fired and, to all appearances, shot him dead. Imagine our very great surprise when we later learned that he had not been killed but survived the bullets which entered his body.[9]

Finn omitted – or had forgotten – the name of the person in question but the story sounds very much like that of Dooner. However gruesome his injuries, Dooner had survived, at least initially. Other victims of the IRA ‘spy chasing fever’ were not so fortunate, such as John Donough, who was taken from his family home in Ratoath village, near Dunshaughlin, on the night of the 13th June 1921 by three armed and disguised men.

Ratoath, Co. Meath (today)

Shots were then heard, and when his parents ventured out, they found their son on the village outskirts, dead with a pair of bullet-holes in his chest and another two in his arms, presumably as defence-wounds. Unlike Dooney’s case, no sign or message was left on the scene:

He appears to have been a popular and exemplary young man and the motive which has brought him to an untimely grave is shrouded in mystery.

One thing for sure, reported the Meath Chronicle, was how “a profound sensation and horrified alarm has been caused throughout South Meath.”

Perhaps significantly, both Donough and Dooner had served in the British Army – the former having been demobilised only the previous Christmas – as had Thomas Duke, a 25-year-old gardener who was similarly confronted at his home in Warrenstown, Dunsany, by a pair of masked men on the 14th June 1921. They took Duke at gunpoint along a road, stopping to grant their victim the chance to say his last prayers. Instead, Duke took a different recourse, grappling with his surprised abductors before fleeing for his life.[10]

Duke’s crime had apparently been to slip a note about the location of an ‘on-the-run’ Volunteer to Constable Crean, an RIC man in Dunshaughlin. As Duke and the other man were otherwise friends, the reason for this betrayal is not clear. Duke was, in turn, exposed by Crean, another IRA mole in police uniform. Retribution was assigned to two brothers who went on to botch the job, with Duke escaping into the night and then out of Meath entirely.[11]

The Missing Postman of Navan

Such covert killings were not necessarily limited to one side, however. On the Good Friday of 1921, the body of Thomas Hodgett, the Postmaster in Navan, was pulled out of the Boyne, thus ending five weeks of searching since his abduction in Navan on the night of the 18th February.

Thomas and Grace Hodgett

His kidnappers had gone to some effort to track him; first knocking on the door of a public-house in Navan, awakening its proprietor, Bernard O’Brien, in bed. Claiming to be police, they demanded Hodgett’s address from O’Brien, and then departed at once, reported the Meath Chronicle:

Mr O’Brien told a representative of this paper at the time that he could not identify the men, but that they were above average height, wearing overcoats, and one had a soft cap and the other a bright grey cap.

Once at the Hodgett residence in Academy Street, the mystery callers again identified themselves as RIC while banging on the front door, although they changed their minds when Grace Hodgett opened it for them, saying instead that they were ‘Sinn Feiners’, with the ominous promise to ‘show what Sinn Feiners would do’. Adding to the surreality of the scene:

They spoke in a tongue which Mrs Hodgett described to a Press representative as “gibberish.” She believed that the men “put on” an Irish accent and she added that she did not believe that the Irish Volunteers had anything to do with it.

Her husband had dressed and was in the process of putting on his footwear when their uninvited guests brusquely ordered him to come, forcing him to leave with one boot unlaced. Witnesses would report hearing gunshots near Blackwater Bridge as well as the sounds of a splash and a motorcar. Blood was found on the bridge the next morning, leading to suspicions of foul play that were at last confirmed when fishermen sighted the remains of Hodgett two months later.

Irish Independent, 22 February 1921

Since previous trawls had found nothing, it was probable that the cadaver had been deeply submerged until dislodged by the current as the river had been recently swollen by heavy rain. A bullet-wound to the chest showed the cause of death, judged to have been instantaneous, so that Hodgett was dead by the time he hit the water. He was still wearing the clothes he was last seen in, one boot still unlaced.

Hodgett was widely missed, apart from the loss to his family:

He had the respect and esteem of the public, and was looked up to by his subordinates in the GPO [General Post Office] employment as an exemplary director, efficient in every way, and sympathetic and helpful to those who required his aid.

As for the reason why, that was not a question the powers-that-be seemed in a hurry to answer. Reporters were barred from the inquiry, as they had been with Sergeant Keighary’s, and whatever evidence was presented remained behind closed doors. Not even the widow was allowed to attend, though that did not stop her from using other means to make herself heard.[12]

Irish Independent, 22nd February 1921

Crossed Lines

Writing to the press on the 4th April 1921, Grace Hodgett stated that:

The authorities have collected evidence against the police in connection with this matter, but apparently they prefer to throw the blame on other shoulders.

As an example of this evasion, it had been reported that the victim had been on friendly terms with the local RIC and British military, thus implicating the IRA in the deed. To this, Grace wrote:

I most emphatically deny this was so in the case of my late husband. He, in the course of his duty, had reported the police on more than one occasion for robbing a sub-office.[13]

Constable Bratton was equally sceptical. To him, the sight of County Inspector Egan scraping the dried flakes of blood off Blackwater Bridge, as part of his ostentatious investigation, made for bad comedy, since Bratton suspected Egan knew all too well who the culprits were. When an order came for a distinctive herring-bone overcoat belonging to Egan to be sent to Dublin Castle, Bratton was more than happy to oblige.

The next morning the Divisional Commissioner of Police arrived in Navan having in the back of his car a number of overcoats. He stopped at Mrs Hodgett’s door and called her out. He asked her if she would know any of the overcoats. She lifted up this particular herring-bone overcoat from amongst the others and said: “That coat was worn by the man with the big teeth.”

“All the Egans had very prominent teeth,” added Bratton in his BMH Statement, where he identified the assassins, thirty years later in 1951, as County Inspector Egan, his brother who was a District Inspector and an unnamed Black-and-Tan. That was the end of official interest in the case, however, and no charges were brought against either of the Egan siblings.

A RIC patrol

Bratton identified a struggle for the Navan Post Office as a motive. Thanks to an employee, Paddy Dunne, the Meath IRA was able to read the RIC dispatches passing through as Dunne knew how to break their cyphers (he also acted as one of Bratton’s contacts in the Volunteers). To plug these leaks, Head Constable Queenan placed his daughter as one of the postal workers, forgoing the usual entrance exams.

One day the Postmaster, Mr Hodgett, pulled her up and chastised her for something she was doing. She became impertinent and said she would call her daddy.[14]

It was after that that the hapless Hodgett was abducted, killed and dumped in the river. This is, at least, according to Bratton. Another explanation is offered by Seamus Finn, Adjutant to the IRA Meath Brigade. When a police spy was executed, thanks to the information Dunne provided, suspicion fell on Hodgett, who was thus killed in turn, despite having no connections with anything seditious, being, as far as Finn knew, a loyal subject of His Majesty.

His death did have the effect of driving some of his friends, who had similarly been indifferent to the national struggle, into the ranks of the insurgency. One was the owner of the Navan Engineering Works, and he began manufacturing for the IRA grenades of a quality that earned Finn’s admiration, while Hodgett’s son joined the Volunteers as an intelligent agent, a consequence almost certainly not anticipated by the murderers.[15]

Hodgett_2Old Scars

Hodgett was not the only one targeted for murder by men in uniforms. Constable Bratton began carrying a second revolver up his sleeve, along with the official one in his belt, when a colleague passed on a warning that County Inspector Egan had guessed at his treachery. Such precautions would stand Bratton in good stead when Egan:

…brought a few of the Tans into the canteen [of Navan Barracks] and set them drunk. I was in a bedroom over the canteen. I could hear the voices underneath me and hear my name being mentioned. After a few minutes I heard footsteps coming up the passage to my room. I took up my revolver and fully cocked it.

One of the Tans opened the door and just entered the room with his Webley revolver in his hand swinging by his thigh. I had my gun up and covering him. When the Tan saw this he turned away. They did not try it again.[16]

Unsurprisingly, Bratton found all of this to be rather a strain and would have resigned had Boylan ordered him to refrain. Good spies were hard to find, after all. In any case, the dual roles did afford Bratton some life-saving privileges, such as when he was walking to Navan Barracks for his Sunday evening shift. Two things caught his notice: the group of youths on Blackwater Bridge, apparently idling the time away, and that the door to the barracks was locked and chained.

Navan (Pollboy) Bridge (today)

His co-workers on the other side were evidently jumpy, for it took a long while for Bratton to persuade them to open. When they did, Bratton was asked if he had seen any sign of an ambush on his way. Bratton said he did not; true, there was the crowd loitering on the bridge, but that was not particularly untoward in itself on a Sunday. The rest of the evening was uneventful, with Bratton indulging in a smoke before heading off back home.

Thinking about it later, he concluded that the garrison had been warned of an impending attack, presumably courtesy of a spy within the Volunteers or one who had overheard their intent. Bratton also learned how lucky he had been. The IRA plan had been to shoot the first policeman who came into view in order to lure out the rest from the barracks. Upon being recognised as one of their own, Bratton was allowed to pass by, unscathed and oblivious.[17]

IRA men at ease

Another survivor in this intelligence duel in Meath was Thomas Duke, the gardener who had fled to Dublin after the failed attempt to murder him on the night of the 14th June 1921. Much as Hodgett’s death had provoked others into taking action, Duke committed himself to the war by enlisting in the RIC. He spent the rest of the conflict stationed in Dublin, though he apparently “did not behave badly…and did not lead the Tans in any raids on his native place,” according to David Hall, a Meath IRA man.

With the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the disbandment of the RIC, Duke returned to Meath, settled down with a wife and became friends with Hall. As neither man was the sort to brood over history, conversation would often turn to that night when Duke had narrowly escaped with his life. During such reminiscences, Duke would open his shirt to flaunt a lengthy scar, the keepsake from a bullet fired after him as he ran.[18]

See also: Capture the Castle: The War Against the Royal Irish Constabulary in Co. Meath, 1919-20


[1] Meath Chronicle, 04/12/1920

[2] Ibid, 11/12/1920

[3] Bratton, Eugene (BMH / WS 467), p. 10

[4] Ibid, p. 7

[5] Boylan, Seán (BMH / WS 1715), pp. 28-9

[6] Ibid, pp. 29-32

[7] Hall, David (BMH / WS 1539), p. 8

[8] Meath Chronicle, 02/04/1921

[9] Finn, Seamus (BMH / WS 1060, Part III), pp. 26-8

[10] Meath Chronicle, 18/006/1921

[11] Hall, pp. 19-21

[12] Meath Chronicle, 02/04/1921

[13] Ibid, 21/04/1921

[14] Bratton, pp. 7-8

[15] Finn, pp. 71-2

[16] Bratton, pp. 8-9

[17] Ibid, p. 11

[18] Hall, p. 21



Meath Chronicle

Bureau of Military History Statements

Boylan, Seán, WS 1715

Bratton, Eugene, WS 467

Finn, Seamus, WS 1060

Hall, David, WS 1539

Capture the Castle: The War Against the Royal Irish Constabulary in Co. Meath, 1919-20

Unexpected Callers

On the night of the 31st October 1919, Sergeant J.J. Mathews was at his desk in the Dillon’s Bridge Barracks in Lismullen, Co. Meath, when a rap on the door distracted him from his paperwork. The caller demanded entry, which Mathews refused – these being troubled times in Ireland, after all – and so instead the voice on the other side asked for directions to the town of Navan, about six miles away.

Ballivor RIC Barracks, Co. Meath (Freeman’s Journal, 4th November 1919)

Mathews answered the request and was almost immediately hit in the face by bullets fired through the window. The other three policemen in the barracks responded with their own guns and, after a few minutes of heated exchange, the assailants backed off and disappeared into the night, leaving shattered windows and perforated walls outside. The only casualty, Mathews, was quickly transported to a hospital in Dublin, where he was soon on the mend, even retaining use of his left eye which had been feared lost, reported the Meath Chronicle:

Sergeant Mathews is a very popular officer, and while stationed in Navan as a constable some years ago he was very highly thought of by the people, and the same applies to the public in his latest sphere of duty.

Injuries aside, Mathews had been lucky. Also that night, almost at the same hour, a second attack on a station of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in Co. Meath was launched, this time at Ballivor, a village six miles from Trim. As in Lismullen, deception was tried, this time successfully, as Constable William Agar answered the door in response to a knock. Sitting in another room, Sergeant Terence MacDermott and two more RIC constables heard two shots ring out and then saw their colleague stagger back.

RIC constables in Ballivor, including Sergeant MacDermott (second from left) (Freeman’s Journal, 4th November 1919)

“Oh! I’m shot!” was all Agar said before collapsing, according to MacDermott in his testimony to the inquiry:

I ran to the day-room door that leads to the hall and immediately I did I saw a crowd of men rushing into the hall. They were wearing masks. One of the masked men caught the handle of the day-room door and prevented me from going out. I and two other constables tried to open it, but we could not.

The policemen were thus trapped as the intruders quickly went about their tasks, some guarding the day-room’s door while others ransacked the upstairs room where the arsenal was stored, making off with five rifles, five bullet-pouches, one revolver and a plentiful amount of ammunition. The door was kept firmly shut until the last of the raiders had escaped out the front. Sergeant MacDermott followed them into the street, firing two shots from his revolver at the twenty – so he estimated – fleeing men before they turned the corner, but none were hit.

His fallen colleague, Constable Agar, 33-years-old and recently married, had transferred to Ballivor only ten days before. The jury at the inquiry ruled that Agar was killed by persons unknown, with the foreman adding that: “The jury wishes to be associated with the expressions of sympathy to Mrs Agar and family, and they also sympathise with the police, who were always popular with the public, and did their duty impartially.”[1]

Funeral of William Ashe, 3rd November 1919 (Freeman’s Journal, 4th November 1919)

The Laying of Plans

Whether popular or impartial, that did not change the unhappy fact that the RIC was on the frontlines of a guerrilla war between the British authorities in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), whose members, or Volunteers, had carried out the twin attacks in Lismullen and Ballivor. As the timing indicated, these were not spontaneous uprisings but carefully coordinated operations that had been planned between officers of the IRA Meath Brigade, and then cleared with GHQ in Dublin.

IRA members

Two other barracks in Summerhill and Bohermeen were intended to be targets as well, their selection, so described Seamus Finn, being due to:

…certain facts, one of which was that Volunteer activity was not so apparent in these places and the RIC had more or less relaxed their vigilance, and also that they were so situated that it was easy to cut off their communication with larger posts.[2]

As Adjutant to the Meath Brigade, Finn was among the high-ranking delegates, including Seán Boylan, the Brigade O/C, and three battalion captains, who travelled in the same car together to Dublin on the 30th October 1919. Once in the city, they waited for some time, before finally making contact with their GHQ superiors, namely Géaroid O’Sullivan and Eamon Price, to be joined later by Michael Collins, Dick McKee and Seán McMahon at the meeting in the Gaelic League premises on Parnell Square.

Parnell Square, Dublin

After a painstakingly detailed overview of the logistics, it was agreed that the Meath men would be provided with arms and two motorcars from Dublin, one each for Ballivor and Bohermeen, in time for the attacks set for the following night. Paucity of resources was a constant hindrance for IRA brigades, so any assistance was welcome. The discussion lasted long into the evening, not stopping until just before midnight, which meant that the Meath officers would have to chance the curfew in returning home.

Foot patrols by the British military were an increasingly common risk in Dublin, a compliment of sort to IRA success. The countrymen were obliged at one point, while waiting for one of their number, to disembark from the car and hide in doorways, with revolvers and grenades at the ready. Despite this close call, the officers succeeded in making it safely back by mid-morning, giving them time to muster the rest of the Brigade for what was to be Meath’s opening volley in the War of Independence.[3]

Storming Ballivor

Joe Lawless (taken during his time in prison)

The night was heavy with drizzle, and Trim an unfamiliar town, making Joseph Lawless’ task in picking up Patrick Mooney, captain of the local battalion, a complicated one. Luckily he had help in a fellow Volunteer, Hubert Kearns, who accompanied him in the Ford car in the drive from Dublin to Meath on the 31st October 1919. Business at the garage he ran in St. Ignatius Street was good, allowing him to own a couple of cars and put them at the service of the Irish revolution for times like these. One of his vehicles would be driven to Lismullen for the attack there, while Lawless was assigned to meet Mooney in Trim before proceeding to Ballivor.

Kearns was able to identify Mooney when they arrived in the town at 9 pm, the captain impressing Lawless with his air of quiet assurance. Mooney and three other IRA men squeezed into the Ford car alongside Lawless and Kearns, and began the eight-mile drive to their target, a ride made more tedious by how one of the passengers, a young man called Lawlor, who:

…was excited at the prospect of a fight and kept talking a lot as we drove along. It was probably the others telling him repeatedly to shut up that impressed his name on my memory.

While the plan was to take Ballivor Barracks unaware and hopefully with the minimum of trouble, “Lawlor’s interjections indicated that he would be a very disappointed man if we did not have a fight,” remembered Lawless.

Five or six other Volunteers were waiting for them at Ballivor. Judging by their prior observations, the RIC garrison was in no particular state of alarm or preparation, which boded well – the element of surprise remained with them. Mooney and two others approached the front of the barracks, while the rest waited in the shadows, including Lawless, who watched as:

The young constable who came to the door in response to the knock opened it cautiously a few inches and seemed about to close it again when Mooney drew his revolver and ordered him to put his hands up. I think that the constable became so flabbergasted at this that he just stood still in the middle of the doorway as if rooted to the spot.

Maybe this delay was taken as defiance. Perhaps taut nerves snapped, for one of the other Volunteers pushed past Mooney and shot the hapless Agar at point-blank range with a revolver. The rest swiftly took advantage of the breach, rushing over the prone body and into the open building. The ransacked munitions were loaded into the car before the victors made their getaway.

IRA men

Lawless drove back to Trim, where he left his Meath passengers with their haul. His part done, he returned to Dublin, taking the precaution of a roundabout route through Finglas rather than the main road. It was left to him to ponder the implications of what had just happened:

We felt rather sorry about the shooting of the constable as we could realise afterwards that his hesitation was due more to the frightened surprise than any intention of resistance.

Still, Lawless took the pragmatic view that:

…if he had managed to delay the entry of Mooney and the others while the other police grabbed hold of their rifles, it might have been another story.[4]

Success was alloyed for the Meath Brigade, for Sergeant Mathews had been more cautious than Constable Agar, and Dillon’s Bridge Barracks remained inviolate. Of the two other attacks planned for Bohermeen and Summerhill, nothing came of them due to confusion over times and meeting-spots.

Site of the former Kells RIC Barracks, Co. Meath

The RIC had been luckier than it knew but the dangers of remaining in small, isolated strongholds had been made all too evident. In the final months of 1919 and into 1920, the police garrisons in Ballivor, Lismullen, Bohermeen, Summerhill and a number of others in Meath were pulled out and concentrated in larger posts such as Trim, Navan, Kells and Oldcastle.[5]

For the Crown authorities, the night of the 31st October 1919 had served as a wakeup call. “This was the first time we realised that the IRA were strong and organised in the area,” recalled one constable posted in Meath at the time.[6]

Meath Coat of Arms

‘A State of Supine Lethargy’

While strategically sound, the decision to withdraw the RIC from certain outlaying barracks exposed it as an authority in retreat. Whether the force was quite up to the challenge of counter-insurgency was something doubted by many in the British Establishment; indeed, the decline had begun a lot sooner in the opinion of General Nevil Macready:

This once magnificent body of men had undoubtedly deteriorated into what was almost a state of supine lethargy, and had lost even the semblance of energy or initiative when a crisis demanded vigorous and resolute action.[7]

Augustine Birrell

Macready was writing of his tour of Ireland in March 1914, during the Ulster Crisis, but nothing he saw of the Irish constabulary in the years to come was to change his mind. He blamed the malaise on the example set by Dublin Castle, citing a conversation he had sat in on between Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, and Augustine Birrell, when the former:

…asked the Chief Secretary why the RIC did not do more to stop the outrages which were then taking place throughout the country. Birrell half-jokingly replied in the sense that it could hardly be expected that the poor police, scattered about in small packets and spending their time fishing, would take the risk of tackling armed disturbances of the peace.

Winston, evidently annoyed, burst out, asking him if that was the state into which he had allowed the RIC to drift during the years he had been Chief Secretary. It made no impression, however, on that light-hearted statesman.[8]

Sir Nevil Macready

But the rot was not just at the top, according to Macready, who pointed to a number of accompanying causes, from the practical – the choice of ordinary houses for some barracks, making them hard to defend – to the social: the shift in recruitment from those of “a good class of farmers’ sons and such like” to “an inferior class of lower education.”[9]

Macready may have been a snob, but much of his diagnosis was seconded by the Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921, composed in 1922 as an internal review of the British Army’s performance. By the time the military intervened, its RIC partners had:

…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.[10]

Which was to an extent understandable, the Record of the Rebellion allowed, as campaigns of murder, intimidation and boycott had whittled down morale. But it was also a case that:

In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, through no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their musketry training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle.[11]

At least, so went the verdicts of professional soldiers, who could afford to specialise. In contrast, the RIC, as a body tasked with both law enforcement and the maintenance of British rule in a country increasingly resistant to it, was obliged to be a jack-of-all-trades, at the risk of being master of none. But perhaps its greatest weakness lay within, for many of its members, by the time of their greatest challenge, no longer believed in what they were doing.

112Rivals for Raids

When Patrick Meehan signed up for RIC training at the Depot in Phoenix Park, Dublin, the process lasted six months. Contrary to what the Record of the Rebellion assumed, firearm lessons were covered, such as musketry, the use of revolvers and how to take cover in the event of a gunfight. Police and detective duties were included, though no intelligence work save to a handful of select cadets, of which Meehan was not one.

Front gate of the Depot, Phoenix Park, Dublin

Indeed, the mood in Meath, to where Meehan – now Constable Meehan – found himself posted, was positively sedate, even with the Home Rule movement of 1913 and the forming of the Irish Volunteers in support. “We had no special instructions regarding watching or reporting the Volunteers,” Meehan recalled.

RIC members even assisted the Volunteers in drills, since many policemen were similarly in favour of Home Rule. Relations between the two groups cooled with the Easter Rising of 1916, however, with the Irish Volunteers – rebranded as the IRA – no longer content with the limits of Home Rule, preferring to set their sights higher for the complete overthrow of British governance in Ireland.

Meehan knew where he stood. During the Conscription Crisis of 1918, he, along with most of his colleagues in Meath, were adamantly opposed to the idea of their countrymen being pressganged into British service and would have refused to enforce it. Conversely, when the authorities thought better of it and shelved conscription, Meehan lamented the missed opportunity, for “it would have united the country and the Police Force from shore to shore.”[12]

Anti-Conscription protestors, 1918

As it was, the RIC moved increasingly towards a collision course with the IRA, as upholders of the status quo against its challengers. The end of August 1920 and the start of September saw an arms-race as the two groups sought to clear Meath of guns in private possession before the other could get its hands on them. The Volunteers were quicker, accomplishing sweeps for two consecutive nights on the 29th and 30th August, reported the Meath Chronicle:

…resulting in the seizure of a large quantity of rifles, guns, ammunition, and small arms. The raids were carried out simultaneously in each district by sections of masked and armed men, and in most cases no opposition to the demands for arms were offered.[13]

Their Crown opponents endeavoured to match this pace and sometimes the same houses would be searched again by one side shortly after the other:

In the district about Navan the rival raiders were particularly active, and both sides can claim a fair share of the spoils. Just twenty-four hours late some told the popular force, while in other instances the boot was on the other foot.

In the Kilmessan district the forces of the Crown arrived too late, and a youngster with the temerity of childhood remarked that they were much too slow for their rivals.

“The taunt was taken in good humour,” which was reflective of the overall mood in the county. With no casualties and limited resistance, everyone could afford to treat the whole affair as a lark, such as when “the inhabitants of a certain town in Meath were provided with some innocent enjoyment” at the sight of RIC men taking into custody “antique spit-fires dating from the days of Queen Anne” and other vintage “weapons more dangerous to the user than to the target.”[14]

9mm Luger automatic pistol, a type used in the War of Independence

The Burning of the Barracks

However indulgent the mood for the moment, no one could forget that Meath, in keeping with the rest of the country, was a warzone. This was not a fact evident at first glance, with nothing as obvious as trench-lines stretching away over the horizon like in France or Belgium during the Great War. Instead, the violence came in short, sharp bursts, such as on the Saturday night of the 3rd April 1920, when the vacated RIC outposts were destroyed throughout Meath in a wave of arson.

A burnt-out RIC barracks, Co. Cork

Dillon’s Bridge Barracks may have thwarted the IRA once before, but it went up in smoke, as did the ones in Ballivor, Ashbourne, Crossmacar, Kilmoon, Summerhill and many others that were found charred and gutted the following morning. So quickly and quietly had the deeds been done that often the neighbours were not aware of anything amiss until the flames were sighted in the night-sky through bedroom windows.

Among the witnesses to the burning at Bohermeen were the wife and children of the former RIC sergeant of the barracks, who were still residing there when, at 11:30 pm, sixteen men forced open the backdoor and politely informed the family to take their leave of the premises. This they did to an adjacent house, along with their choice furniture items that the intruders took the time to remove for them before setting the interior alight. In this case, minimum damage was inflicted, save to a hole in the roof, a failure attributed to the dampness inside. But this was the exception and the rule now in Meath was that a police building that stood empty would not be standing for long.

IRA men, armed with rifles

A collective blow had been struck, and another landed in response: four days later, on the Wednesday of the 7th April, wholesale arrests by the RIC, reinforced by British soldiers in metal trench helmets and carrying rifles with fixed bayonets, were launched throughout Meath. To take one example, in Navan, at 3 am:

A military lorry arrived in the town, and conducted by a sergeant and constable of the local force, the military made their way to the residence of Mr Clinch, of Messrs Clinch and Gleeson, newsagents, Navan. Mr Clinch, having hastily dressed, admitted the military, and without any charges being preferred against him, he was placed under arrest.

Three others joined Clinch in the army van, including an employee in a hardware store and a 19-year-old who had been visiting relatives in the area. As with Clinch, no cause for their detainment was given.

Watergate Street, Navan, Co. Meath

In contrast to Navan, the Crown parties returned from Trim empty-handed, the ‘men of interest’ apparently not being at home. One such wanted was Patrick Mooney, the captain of the Trim IRA Company and the conqueror of Ballivor Barracks. He was still absent when the searchers returned for a second look, and away he was likely to remain, among the ‘on the runs’ flitting between safe-houses and bolt-holes for as long as they could.[15]

Mooney and the other Trim runaways were at least still at liberty, and for that they could thank a friend in enemy uniform. Constable Meehan was stationed in Trim, ostensibly in service to the King, but his true allegiance lay elsewhere. Even before the attacks on Ballivor and Dillon’s Bridge Barracks the previous year, he had been in communication with officers of the Trim IRA Company, leaking them news of impending arrests and enabling the Volunteers to stay one step ahead:

When the IRA were carrying out this general raid for arms throughout the county I kept them informed of the areas that the police would be working daily, so that they were always able to get that area cleaned up before the police arrived in it.

Which had the additional benefit of avoiding unnecessary bloodshed, as “this also prevented the two sides from clashing.” But Meehan was no peacenik, and when his IRA contacts approached him for help against his workplace of Trim Barracks, he was happy to oblige.[16]

The Big Job

Michael Collins

“It’s a big job,” remarked Michael Collins when Seán Boylan announced the intentions of the Meath Brigade, of which he was O/C, to take Trim Barracks. Boylan had travelled to Dublin, as did other IRA officers from across Ireland, to touch base with GHQ, the venue being, as before, the Gaelic League premises in Parnell Square. Collins listened, along with Richard Mulcahy, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, as the delegates reported on the operations performed so far in their territories and about the ones to come.[17]

Collins had reason for his stated concern to Boylan, for the stronghold in question, according to a contemporary newspaper account:

…was a massive stone building, situated on the southern end of the town on the road to Longford and it was formerly used as a military barrack. It is surrounded on all sides by a wall ten foot high and adjoined the Fair Green, being thus in a very prominent position. It was regarded as impregnable to ordinary assault, and untakeable except battered down by heavy artillery.[18]

One of the garrison went so far as to openly boast of its impregnability, prompting the Meath Volunteers to consider how to put that claim to the test.[19]

Sir Joseph Byrne

Trim had been relatively quiet so far, in part due to being occupied by ‘regular’ RIC men and not the recent additions to the force who were already making a name for themselves in Ireland and not in a commendable way. When the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries first arrived in Ireland, the Trim police complained in writing to Dublin Castle, prompting Sir Joseph Byrne, the Inspector General, to come down and hear their objections in person. Byrne agreed to keep the newcomers out of Trim for as long as the current occupants could maintain the barracks by themselves.

It says much about the state of the RIC that such deals had to be made. Meehan was by then married and living outside the barracks, enjoying the calm, until Mick Hynes, the first lieutenant in the Trim IRA, came to his house to say that a force of Tans were due to be stationed in the town. Given their fearsome reputation, these new arrivals would make life harder for all involved, and so it was imperative that the barracks be put beyond use before then.


This news came as a surprise to Meehan but he took what Hynes said in his stride, and the pair discussed the best ways to overcome Trim Barracks. Artillery was obviously out of the question, so craft and cunning would have to suffice. Sunday morning was the best time for a sudden attack, Meehan told Hynes, as half the garrison would be out at Mass, leaving the other ten to ‘guard’ the place, mostly in bed – Sunday being the day of rest, after all.

Furthermore, Meehan drew out a plan of the interior, including where the munitions were kept, and provided an impression of the keys to the front and backdoors in a bar of soap, though it was later realised that even if the Volunteers could replicate the keys, the duplicates would be of no use with the originals still in their locks from the inside.

Nonetheless, the plan was set to go ahead on the Sunday of the 26th September 1920. Hynes warned Meehan beforehand, allowing the constable to resign from the force on the Wednesday, with enough time to collect his final salary before he left Trim on the morning of the attack. Taking a holiday out of Meath suddenly seemed like a very good idea.[20]

RIC personnel

The Taking of Trim

Leaving nothing to chance, the Trim Volunteers met in the Town Hall on the Thursday before, and then on Saturday in the O’Hagan fish and fruit shop owned by the mother of one of those present. “There were so many coming and going into the shop for years that nobody suspected there was anything on,” disguising the council of war taking place inside, according to one participant. Also present were the Brigade staff and IRA men from other Meath battalions who would be doing their part by blocking the roads to Trim with timber to stymie any Crown reinforcements.[21]

Trim, Co. Meath (today)

“The undertaking was a big one, requiring careful planning and perfect timing on the part of the Brigade staff,” recorded Seamus Finn, the Brigade Adjutant, “and superb pluck and fighting ability on the part of the men who were to carry it out.”[22]

Boylan had assured Collins of victory. A hands-on leader, he moved into place close to the barracks with twenty other Volunteers, while Mick Hynes and Patrick Mooney did the same with twenty-four participants in a different hiding position. A third group, under Finn’s command, waited next to a car in which to transport any loot.

IRA men

The darkness of the early hours helped obscure the Volunteers as four RIC men stepped outside their stronghold, lined up and then marched in a body to church. Hynes and Mooney led their own party as they silently climbed, one by one, across the wicket gate in the south wall of the barracks, towards where a door had been left ajar. A dog began barking but too late, for the Volunteers were already rushing through, to be met by Head Constable White. White, according to Boylan, drew his revolver, only to be cut down by a bullet and killed.[23]

Patrick Quinn was among the advance party and recalled how:

Paddy Mooney and Mick Hynes were the first two to enter. As they did so a District Inspector of the RIC [sic – White] attempted to reach a box of hand grenades but was shot dead in the attempt. All the rest of the RIC, who were either cooking or having their breakfast, put up their hands and surrendered.[24]

In fact, both Boylan and Quinn remembered it wrong, for White survived, albeit wounded. Nonetheless, one fact is uncontested: Trim Barracks fell in minutes and with no further resistance from the five-strong garrison.

Trim RIC Barracks, before…

The other four RIC men had likewise been rounded up at church by Boylan’s division, despite the efforts of one to hide in the confessional, and taken to the barracks at gunpoint to join the rest of the captives. They were ordered to quit the constabulary within the week but, besides that and the shooting of White, the whole affair was cordial enough; indeed, one of the policemen “is reported to have said that the raiders were evidently averse to bloodshed,” wrote the Meath Chronicle when its journalist visited the charred remnants of Trim Barracks.[25]

…and after

For the victors were true to their modus operandi by setting their conquest aflame after first looting the munitions storeroom. Twenty rifles, twenty shotguns, six revolvers, ammunition for all the guns, a box of grenades and some bayonets were added to the Meath Brigade arsenal, making it a good day’s work indeed. White was taken to the hospital section of the local workhouse, while the Volunteers assisted the RIC men in removing the possessions of the latter from Trim Barracks – since these revolutionaries had no cause against private property – before the building was sprinkled with oil and paraffin, and set ablaze.[26]

Seamus Finn

That finishing touch inflicted the only casualty on the Volunteers when “one of our men was badly scorched about the face and hands when he mistook a can of petrol for a can of paraffin,” described Quinn. “It exploded in his hands as he put a match to the liquid.”[27]

Finn remembered it differently as, according to him, the raiders suffered not as much as a scratch for their efforts. Either way, “the reputedly impregnable Trim RIC barracks fell into our hands without even a semblance of resistance,” gloated Finn, who paid tribute:

…to the elaborate planning of the Brigade and local officers in conjunction with the information given by our contacts among the RIC to the perfect timing with which the operation was carried out, to the cool and efficient way in which the men had set to work and to the excellence of our intelligence men.[28]

The mood among the civilians of Trim, however, was not quite as triumphant and, as it turned out, with good reason.

Fell Destruction

“The people were very much upset and feared the usual reprisals,” wrote the Meath Chronicle afterwards, when the worst was already done. “The local clergy were active and an interview with the military got an undertaking that no reprisals would be indulged in.”[29]

David Neligan

And that appeared to be that. Not all were convinced, such as David Neligan, who warned Michael Collins in Dublin that Auxiliaries planned to make Trim pay for the loss of the barracks. As a senior policeman, Neligan was better informed than most and, like Meehan, used his privileged position to leak information, but Collins, for once, brushed him off, having already been assured by a Church dignitary in Trim about the truce agreed with the British forces.

Collins was to rue his complacency. Afterwards, “I don’t think he ever took notice of any guarantee or advice by the clergy or local civilians,” according to an aide of his.[30]

The first hint that the drama had not yet ended for Trim was later that Sunday, when several military lorries rumbled into town at 3:30 pm, en route to the ruined barracks. When they came across a game of hurling on the Fair Green, the soldiers opened fire, hitting 16-year-old George Griffin in the groin and another young man, James Kelly, in the leg as he mounted his bicycle:

A man named Bird rushed to Griffin’s assistance. A soldier stepping out covered him with his rifle and told him to stand back. Father Murphy, coming on the scene, enquired was anybody hurt. Bird said there was and a soldier said there was not.

At least the two stricken youths were allowed to be removed for medical care. After retrieving the RIC constables left homeless by the loss of their barracks, the soldiers drove back out of Trim with no further ado.

Trim, Co. Meath (today)

Perhaps the agreement the clergymen had made with the military would be upheld after all – the shooting attributable to stretched nerves – though the streets had noticeably emptied at an earlier time than normal and one inhabitant, Mrs Higgins, had a neighbour remove furniture from the public-house she owned and lived in. As her two sons were ‘on the run’, one having already served a jail sentence, she had reason to fear being singled out for collective retribution.

Her hunch was proved correct when, the next day, more lorries entered Trim between 3 and 4 am, this time carrying Black-and-Tans. Perhaps the guarantee with the British Army did not extend to them as a branch of the RIC. Maybe the deal was never intended to be honoured. Either way, the invaders started with the Higgins property, at the lower end of Market Street. Petrol was used to soak the roof and then set on fire, with bombs thrown against the wall to hasten the destruction.

Black-and-Tans on patrol

The Tans moved next to the Drapers and Boots Merchants on the High Street, owned by the Allen brothers, one of whom was a member of the local Sinn Féin club as well as of Trim Urban Council. Neither was present when the invaders kicked their way in, terrifying the shop assistants who were. They fled as the building was likewise set ablaze, as was subsequently the Town Hall in Castle Street and the business of J.J. Reilly in Market Street, the latter specialising in the manufacture of mineral water, along with the sale of whiskey and other spirits. The Tans spent some time looking for Reilly, shouting out for whereabouts of the Sinn Féin Club Chairman. This was despite Reilly playing no part in politics but he wisely did not stay to argue the point, hiding instead in a kitchen and escaping an almost certain death.

The Lawlor family were also subjected to a harrowing ordeal, being woken in their house in Castle Street, while the Town Hall burned, and threatened for them to reveal the whereabouts of their absent sons. An officer arrived in time to reprieve the Lawlors, by which point dawn was breaking. The Tans called it a night and drove off, promising to come back the following day.

Trim Town Hall after the sack

Trim was spared that at least, as reported the Meath Chronicle, “all is peace in the town since Monday morning and the desperadoes have not returned to continue their fell destruction.”

Enough had been committed already. Which could have been worse, as J.J. Reilly pointed out to a journalist from the newspaper. If the fire in his building had reached the rear, where petrol and other flammable materials were stored, the results then might very well have been catastrophic for the whole town.

In any case, Reilly said, he would be able to resume production within the week, with no loss of employment to any of his hundred or so workers. Further encouraging news was reported with the expected recoveries of Griffin and Kelly, as well as Head Constable White, victims of the same war.[31]

The remains of buildings in Trim after its sacking, October 1920

Getting Out

Even among the Crown forces, there was a sense that a line had been crossed. When a group of RIC men drove to Trim, they found the brutalised buildings – or what was left of them – still smouldering.

“To hell with this,” said one constable, who resigned later that day.[32]

RIC policemen

Having already quit the force, Meehan returned to inspect the ruined barracks, a handiwork which was partly his own. RIC guards who were on the scene, rooting through the debris, ordered him away, indicating that they saw him not as an ex-colleague but as the enemy. Meehan got the hint and hid out in his native Co. Clare, feeling like he was ‘on the run’ himself.

After three weeks of this, he returned to his house in Trim, and it was there that a group of RIC and Tans, including County Inspector Egan, found him one night. They took him outside the town, along the road to Navan, where they chanced upon another RIC patrol, led by Sergeant O’Brien, who recognised Meehan. After Egan and O’Brien exchanged words, Meehan was forced into a field for a rough interrogation:

Some revolver shots were fired over my head and I was questioned about my part in the capture of the barracks. They said that they knew I had given it away and that they knew all about me. I denied everything vigorously. This took place on the night of ‘Bloody Sunday’ [21st November 1920] so you can realise they were in a nice mood.

Nonetheless, the RIC posse refrained from doing the worst. Meehan could thank O’Brien, for the sergeant, as he told Meehan later, had threatened Egan with exposure should anything unfortunate and irreversible happen to their former co-worker.

Instead, Meehan was told to be out of the country within twelve hours and then left him to find his way back to Trim, meeting on the way his wife, out searching by candlelight and expecting to find his dead body. Unsurprisingly, Meehan left Trim the next day, staying with his wife’s family in Co. Kildare, spending no more than a fortnight there before fleeing abroad to London.[33]

The organisation he had served and betrayed was already moribund, or at least the Royal Irish Constabulary as it had been. When William Agar was killed in Ballivor the previous year, the jury at the inquest had praised the police for their popularity and impartiality. No one could say the same about their replacements who now patrolled the villages and lanes of Meath, bearing the name of the RIC and its clothing, but of a very different nature indeed.


When Tans appeared in Navan on the 5th October 1920, in their distinctive motley of police uniforms and civilian garb, it was enough to send the townspeople into a state of near panic. Thankfully, the example of Trim was not repeated, the Tans being content to quench their thirst in the public-houses, but their mere presence, and in such numbers, signified the end of an era and the start of another, more dangerous one.[34]

See also:

The Enemy/Friend of my Friend/Enemy is my ????: The Intelligence War in Co. Meath, 1920-1

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


[1] Meath Chronicle, 08/11/1919

[2] Finn, Seamus (BMH / WS 901), p. 10

[3] Ibid, pp. 13-5

[4] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 314-6

[5] Boylan, Seán (BMH / WS 1715), pp. 13-4

[6] Bratton, Eugene (BMH / WS 467), p. 6

[7] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 1 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924]), pp. 178-9

[8] Ibid, pp. 179

[9] Ibid, pp. 179-80

[10] Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), p. 30

[11] Ibid

[12] Meehan, Patrick (BMH / WS 478), pp. 2-3

[13] Meath Chronicle, 04/09/1920

[14] Ibid, 11/09/1920

[15] Ibid, 10/04/1920

[16] Meehan, pp. 4-6

[17] Boylan, p. 14

[18] Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920

[19] Finn, Seamus (BMH / WS 858) p. 2-3

[20] Meehan, pp. 5-6

[21] O’Hagan, Henry (BMH / WS 696), p. 6

[22] Finn, WS 858, p. 3

[23] Boylan, pp. 15-6

[24] Quinn, Patrick (BMH / WS 1696), p. 5

[25] Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920

[26] Finn, WS 858, pp. 8-9

[27] Quinn, p. 5

[28] Finn, WS 858, p. 8

[29] Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920

[30] Kennedy, Tadhg (BMH / WS 1413), p. 82

[31] Meath Chronicle, 02/10/1920

[32] Bratton, p. 6

[33] Meehan, pp. 7-8

[34] Meath Chronicle, 09/10/1920



Meath Chronicle

Bureau of Military History Statements

Boylan, Seán, WS 1715

Bratton, Eugene, WS 467

Finn, Seamus, WS 858

Finn, Seamus, WS 901

Kennedy, Tadhg, WS 1413

Quinn, Patrick, WS 1696

Lawless, Joseph, WS 1043

Meehan, Patrick, WS 478

O’Hagan, Henry, WS 696


Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Live, Vol. 1 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924])

Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009)

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

‘All Creeds, Classes and Parties’

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

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

Leanfam Go Dlath Chlu Ar Sinnsir.


Ticket of Admission to PUBLIC MEETING

to be held at 8:30 o’clock in the


On Sunday night next, 14th December, 1913,

To Form a Cork City Corps of the


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

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

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

J.J. Walsh (GAA)

Liam De Roiste (Gaelic League)

Diarmaid Fawsitt (IDA)

Maurice O’Connor (UCC)

Muscail Do Mhisneach A Bhanbh[1]

J.J. Walsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bloody Baptism

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

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

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

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

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

It certainly did not escape the rest of the room.

Eoin MacNeill

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

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

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

ed73-cork_volunteersPrestige and Personalities

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

William O’Brien

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

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

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

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

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

Liam de Róiste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friends and / or Foes

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

Irish Volunteers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irish Volunteers

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

Tomás MacCurtain

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

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

The Split

Worse was to happen.

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

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

As Walsh envisioned:

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

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

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

John Redmond on a recruitment poster for the British Army

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Members of the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP)

‘A Virulent Enemy’

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

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

Diarmaid Fawsitt

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

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

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

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

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

The Hibernian Rifles

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

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

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

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

Irish Volunteers

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

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

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

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

Laying the Groundwork

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

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

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

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

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

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

North Frederick Street, Dublin (today)

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

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

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

Sean McDermott
Seán MacDiarmada

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

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

Easter Week

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

The General Post Office, Dublin

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

The Exchange Hotel, Parliament Street, Dublin

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

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