Conscious, Constituency, Country: The Political, Prison and Policing Career of Michael Staines, from Frongoch Camp to Civic Guard Mutiny, 1916-22

A Civilising Effect

War might have been ended in Ireland, or at least paused, by the Truce of July 1921, but that meant for Michael Staines an increased workload. No longer confined to sitting on the side-lines in prison, Staines was now the liaison officer on behalf of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) with the British military authorities in both Co. Galway and his native Mayo. While he had his doubts that the ceasefire would hold for very long, Staines dutifully set forth from Dublin to Galway railway station and there to Eglinton Street Barracks to make the acquaintance of his British counterpart, Divisional Commissioner M.G. Cruise of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

The Eglinton Street Barracks, Co. Galway (now demolished, more information here:

The scars from the past two and a half years of conflict were apparent almost as soon as Staines stepped off the train. The Railway Hotel he passed while leaving the station was adorned with barbed-wire loops, courtesy of its Auxiliary garrison – unsurprisingly, Staines refused Cruise’s offer of accommodation there. He preferred instead his usual venue in the county, Ballinasloe House at Salthill, despite its current boarded-up state from when a British patrol had smashed its windows a few months ago. But Staines was not to be deterred, arranging for every pane of glass to be replaced and Ballinasloe House reopened before the day was done.

Nor was he intimidated when drunken Auxiliaries came knocking roughly at Ballinasloe House, a few weeks later, in search of him:

I reported the matter to Mr. Cruise, and told him that if he allowed anything like it to happen again these men would have to be deported. This had a civilising effect and I was not troubled further by them.[1]

Michael Staines

Galway had been in need of a ‘civilising effect’ for quite a while, having suffered a large number of Crown reprisals during the guerrilla campaign. This was in contrast with neighbouring Mayo, despite it being similarly rebellious and how both counties had been under Cruise’s military authority. When Staines pointed out this difference to Cruise, the Divisional Commissioner replied: “We were afraid of the Mayo lads.”

Which must have stirred Staines’ heart to hear his people held in such dread regard by the enemy; indeed, he had already forwarded his gun to Mayo in preparation for his return when the Truce broke down, as he was sure it would. While he had spent the proceeding conflict either in Dublin or as a prisoner, next time would be served as part of a Mayo IRA Flying Column.[2]

That opportunity veered perilously close at least once, according to Seán Gibbons, who briefly worked alongside Staines in liaising duties: “By the beginning of October, 1921, the Truce seemed in great danger of breaking”; enough for Gibbons to rejoin the ranks of the Mayo IRA Brigade and for Staines’ recall to Dublin. His Galway office on University Road was closed accordingly. “The position was very delicate apparently for two or three weeks” before the heat died down and life resumed its prior state of ‘not at war, not quite at peace’.[3]

“Looking back on it, while I must say that the time in Galway was interesting for a week or two, I got tired of it rapidly, as there was not enough work to do,” Gibbons later wrote.[4]

Which would have been news to Staines. For him, it was one thing after another to delay the seemingly inevitable return to war and keep Galway on a relatively even keel. When trees were reported lain across the road at Kilmaine, apparently in preparation for an ambush – an IRA speciality – he and Cruise drove over together. After inspecting the suspicious site, the pair agreed that it was the recent storm to blame. A closer shave was at the Galway Town Hall, on the Sunday of the 2nd October 1921, when shots were fired, a man was killed and the situation became, as Gibbons put it, very delicate.[5]

A Delicate Position

It says much about the state of Ireland at the time that the bullets – according to one witness – that came through the Town Hall window just before midnight, in between songs, were not considered sufficient to cancel the dance, held in aid of the Republican Prisoners’ Dependents’ Fund. Everyone threw themselves on the floor, some women doing so involuntarily upon fainting, and a panic was close to breaking out when the Volunteers of the IRA, who had been acting as door stewards, came in to quell it.

Evidently they were successful, for the dance was soon restarted. It was not until Cruise and Staines appeared together to request the postponement of any further activities, out of respect for the British Army officer who had been shot dead outside, that the revellers had any idea that anything more serious had occurred.

Souchon, 05.10.21
Lieutenant G.H. Souchon (from the Irish Times, 05/10/1921)

The deceased was Lieutenant G.H. Souchon, 17th Lancers, a popular man with his fellow officers as well as the Galway townspeople, some of whom he would have known through his participation in the local boat club. “A pathetic coincidence is that the officer was to have retired from the Army last month,” noted the Irish Times, “but owing to some delay in the arrival of his papers his retirement was postponed.” Another victim that night was Temporary Constable Driver Barnes, wounded in the hip, gravely but not life-threateningly so.

Naturally, everyone had their own version of what happened – and where the responsibility lay. With an official inquiry pending, there were two theories, according to the Galway correspondent of the above newspaper:

It is alleged on the one hand that the origin of the trouble was an attempt on the part of some members of the Crown Forces to enter the building without payment, and, on the other hand, that members of the Crown Forces were held up by Republican police [IRA] and searched in the vicinity of the hall.

Either way, an already tense situation boiled over into violence, resulting in the firing of the gunshots, one of which struck Lieutenant Souchon as he drove by with colleagues:

He received the fatal shot in the forehead, almost between the eyes, and collapsed into the arms of a brother officer, who was sitting next to him in the back of the car.[6]

Meanwhile, Staines, Gibbons and the other guests at Ballinasloe House were abed and had been since eleven, as per the rules – the proprietor ran a tight establishment. Roused by some commotion, Gibbons got up to find Staines in the next room, already dressed and about to depart:

I asked him where he was going. He replied to the effect that he was going down to the Town Hall where an officer of the Dragoons had been shot, with the resultant danger to the Truce. I suggested that he should take me along with him, that I would be helpful on a journey of this nature, but he was just not in that particular frame of mind and said that perhaps it would be better if he saw Cruise himself and got an idea of the position generally for Headquarters.[7]

Joe Ring
Joe Ring

Staines never mentions Gibbons in his own account, written thirty-three years later in 1954 as part of his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement. Joe Ring, in contrast, features prominently, perhaps because Ring had Staines’ respect while Gibbons did not. A fellow Mayo man and Staines’ assistant in liaising duties (later taking over from him when the latter was recalled to Dublin), Ring had previously fought in the Mayo IRA, most notably as commander at the Carrowkennedy Ambush in June 1921, where he had treated captured Auxiliaries chivalrously, providing the wounded with first-aid and allowing them to be removed for treatment. Such humanity had earned him the esteem of even the British forces in Galway.[8]

Who Knows?

At least, that’s how Staines told it.

Douglas V. Duff

As with much else in the period, what occurred exactly that night would be tussled over by conflicting sources. Douglas V. Duff wrote in his memoirs (published in 1934) about how his fellow Black-and-Tans streamed out of their Eglinton Street Barracks upon news of the shooting, some straight out of bed and in various states of dress. Coming across one man in a green uniform at the scene, and identifying him not only a ‘Shinner’ but one responsible for the deaths of several of their comrades, they dragged him to the back of the hall. An impromptu firing-squad was forming when the RIC Divisional Commander, in a dressing-gown, put himself between the Tans and the ‘Shinner’, daring the would-be executioners to shoot through him, causing them to back down and thereby saving the other man’s life.[9]

Though unnamed in Duff’s book, the heroic (and almost-self-sacrificing) Divisional Commander was probably Cruise. Whether the ‘Shinner’ who narrowly escaped death was supposed to be Ring or Staines is uncertain; unlike Ring, Staines had not seen active combat during the insurgency, instead serving in an administrative role as IRA Quartermaster in Dublin. He was, however, the one to be threatened when arriving, as Staines told it:

…at the Town Hall several Auxiliaries rushed at me with their revolvers, and two of them actually had their revolvers on my chest.

The saviour is this version was not Cruise but Ring, who:

…came in behind me with a gun in each hand. He covered the two British officers, saying, “Put down those guns or I’ll shoot”, and they put down the guns.

Ring had warned Staines at Ballinasloe House against coming in the police car that was waiting for them outside. Staines decided to do so anyway – while Ring came in a separate vehicle – which, according to Staines, allowed him to catch the other side in a ‘gotcha’ moment:

On the journey the car in which I was travelling was held up by Auxiliaries in Shop Street. It was held up because it was a police car. The Auxiliaries told the driver about the shooting and said they wanted to get out of Galway as quickly as possible to Lenaboy. In my hearing they admitted that they were the culprits who had done the shooting. Of course they did not know I was in the car.

Staines was able to use this inside information when finally meeting Cruise. The Divisional Commander was in a thunderous mood at Souchon’s death until Staines repeated what he had overheard in the car. Instantly contrite, Cruise threw his arms around Staines’ shoulder and accepted responsibility on behalf of the Crown forces in Galway, agreeing to Staines’ advice to withdraw them from the town that night before they made good on their threat to burn the town. At the subsequent inquest, “the British admitted that one of their D.I.s [District Inspectors] had done the shooting” under the mistaken impression that the car with Souchon in it was an IRA-owned one, according to Staines.[10]

Galway Town Theatre, formerly the Town Hall where the fatal fracas occured

The inquest in question, held two days after the shooting, on the 4th October, had actually said no such thing, to go by contemporary coverage. As Staines had told Cruise beforehand that the witnesses the latter requested for the hearing would not attend, the only ones who did testify were Auxiliaries or Lancers. None of them, however, were able to provide a definite version of events; it is not even clear if Souchon’s death and the ruckus at the Town Hall were connected.

Initially, it was reported that the deceased had died in ‘the arms of a brother officer’; the Lancer who had been in the front seat at the time told of how he had not known Souchon was dead until arriving back at their camp at Earl’s Island and finding the blood-stained Lieutenant slumped in the backseat. He had been still alive when the car was stopped in Galway town by a police cordon, during which puffs of smoke and flashes of light were seen from the windows of a house before them. Three bullet holes were later found in the back of the car-hood, with the fatal shot believed to have gone through the back window to strike Souchon – which would rather contradict the insistent of the surviving passengers that the firing they witnessed had come from the front, not behind them.

IRA men posing for the camera

As for the fracas at the Town Hall, testimony depicted the IRA as the aggressors. A District Inspector was struck in the face when an argument with the Volunteers – in civilian dress but marked out by green ribbons in their coat button-holes – over their legal status as a police force turned violent. Shots were made as the RIC retreated from the scene, prompting return-fire and the arrival of Crown reinforcements who forced their way into the Town Hall. It was at that point Staines joined them. According to an unnamed “high official” of the RIC, the IRA liaison officer admitted that the breach of the Truce had been on the Irish side.[11]

‘A Highly Efficient Officer’

W.J. Brennan-Whitmore

Whichever version one chooses to believe (if any, given how self-serving each is), Staines emerges in all of them as cool-headed at a pinch. But then, he had had a lot of practice, such as during his stint as prisoner commandant in Frongoch Camp after the Easter Rising of 1916. When a “very difficult situation” occurred, he was able to handle it “with remarkable efficiency and tact”, as described by fellow resident W.J. Brennan-Whitmore.

The Camp Commandant – dubbed ‘Buckshot’ on account of him warning his charges that they would be met with buckshot should they risk an escape – had approached Staines with the idea of each of the sixteen huts in Frongoch having a leader appointed who would then provide a list of everyone inside. This was ostensibly for greater efficiency but Staines, suspecting it as a means of identifying whoever was liable for British military service, refused to cooperate. Even when threatened with withheld rations, Staines held his ground, retorting to ‘Buckshot’ that he would sooner be a corpse than a spy, which was what such a role amounted to.[12]

An attempt by the Frongoch authorities to force the issue with a roll-call flopped when 342 out of the 546 detainees stayed mum rather than respond to their names. For this, they were sent to internment without privileges but the point had been made, in no small part due to Staines, according to Brennan-Whitmore.[13]

“He was a highly efficient officer who earned the love and respect of every individual prisoner,” Brennan-Whitmore wrote. “Could I pay him a higher tribute?”[14]

Illustration of Frongoch Camp by Cathal MacDowall, a prisoner there.

Staines was released from Frongoch at the end of 1916. Despite continuing to play an active role in the Irish revolution, Staines would not see the inside of a prison again until the 6th of December 1920, when a session of the Dublin Corporation at City Hall was interrupted by a squad of armed Auxiliaries. The roll book allowed the British officer in charge to know exactly who was present, and he was undeterred by the silence that met his call for a ‘Mr Staines’. It looked like he would have to arrest everyone in the room, he said out loud.

After that, an Auxiliary approached a man sitting in one of the back seats and asked his name.

Black-and-Tans searching Irish suspects

“Mr Staines,” came the answer. He was at once taken into custody. The officer went through the rest of the names in the roll book. By the time the Auxiliaries departed, six Dublin aldermen were accompanying them to jail.[15]

Staines would tell the story a little differently. The sole reason he had attended in the first place – for life was risky enough for the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive – was because a motion was about to be presented before Dublin Corporation that amounted to a vote of loyalty to the British Government. Which would not do at all and so Michaels Collins ordered Staines to oppose it. Staines stayed dumb as the British officer read out his name and it was only the glances in his direction from the rest of the Aldermen that gave him away.[16]

At least Staines could have the gratification of the story reaching not only the newspapers but the House of Commons, where Joe Devlin MP was sarcastically asking the Chief Secretary of Ireland if such arrests were supposed to make Ireland a more peaceful place. As justification, Sir Hamar Greenwood provided a quick summary of each detainee’s rebel CV:

Alderman Michael Staines, captain in the 1st Dublin Battalion, Irish Republican Army, so-called ‘Minister of Trade and Commerce’ to ‘Dail Eireann,’ previously a tailor. He has been continuously ‘on the run’ since February last, and slept the night previous to his arrest in a hay shed. Hidden ammunition was found in his last permanent address. He is known to be a member of the Inner Circle of the Irish Republican Army Headquarters.[17]

“Staines is not what I expected,” Mark Sturgis, a senior administrator in Dublin Castle, wrote in his diary upon meeting him in October 1921. “I am told he is a cunning twister but he has the appearance of a good looking type of honest peasant – the dark Galway type, keen and straight forward but not foxy.” Staines was by then out of jail, freed as part of the Truce of July 1921, but the bulk of the prisoners continued to linger behind bars.

Irish prisoners at Ballykinlar Camp, Co. Dow

It was on their behalf that Staines and Fintan Murphy were meeting with Sturgis, to discuss their conditions and possible release. After appraising the two Sinn Féin representatives up close, Sturgis decided that, while Murphy was better educated, “on the whole Staines made a better impression on me.” Whether friend or foe, Staines seems to have had that effect on people.[18]

Sovereignty vs. Slavery

Regardless, the prisoners remained as such by the time Staines stood up to address Dáil Éireann on the 6th January 1922. Since most of the session had been and would be “scenes of excitement, outbursts of passion and stormy protests” – not surprisingly, given how the debate was on that most emotive of topics, the Anglo-Irish Treaty – Staines promised he would be brief, for two reasons:[19]

The first is that I don’t want to import any bitterness into this discussion; I want to have the Dáil and the country united if possible, if they are not united I sincerely hope that no word or action of mine will be responsible for disunion.

As for the second:

There are two thousand Irishmen in Irish and English jails; they have got to stop there while we are talking and repeating the same things over and over again; there are forty-one of these men in jails in this Republic of Ireland under sentence of death. I don’t want, and I am sure these prisoners don’t want me to bring up their case here in order that it would decide the vote one way or another; I am speaking for myself; but anyway for their sakes I think we ought to hurry up and finish this debate.

With that said, Staines got to the question on everyone’s minds: yes, he was voting for the Treaty. In doing so, he was following his own accordance and the wishes of the inhabitants of Dublin North-West, who he represented as their TD, as well as that of the Irish people in general. Or, as he summed up, with a flair for alliteration: “My conscious, my constituency, my country.”

Michael Staines (left in the photo) and Eamonn Duggan (right) on their way to the Dáil, December 1921

Despite the worthy sentiment at the start, it did not take long for the bile to seep into his words as Staines picked at the apparent inconsistencies of the opposition. Had not President Éamon de Valera stated that anyone believing the Plenipotentiaries could return from London with a Republic expected them to do what a mighty army could not? And now de Valera was putting forward a document – the controversial ‘Document No. 2’ – of his own that was neither a Republic nor, unlike the Treaty, actually signed.

“Today the President made a statement in which he said he is going to stand by the Republic,” Staines said, rather snidely, to cries of ‘Shame!’ around the hall. “I am glad he is a Republican again, and I am very sorry he ever left the rock of the Republic.”

This was too much for the man in question to take lying down:

Éamon de Valera

De Valera: If that could be proved –

Staines: President de Valera will understand me, he will admit that I don’t want to say anything to hurt his feelings or the feelings of anyone in this House. We know each other a good many years. We have been always good friends, and I hope we will remain good friends to the end.

De Valera: Show where the document is inconsistent with the Republic.

Staines: First, as to your leaving the British Navy in possession of some ports.

De Valera: For five years.

Michael Colivet

It took an intervention by Michael Colivet, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, to cut off this particular thread: “In discussing the Treaty, we can’t keep to it [as in, Document No. 2].”

Staines continued with his arguments. What needed to be done now was whatever was best for the country and that was clearly, in Staines’ mind, the Treaty. What else was the other side – “I don’t know what side to call it” – suggesting? Did anyone think that if the President took four or five other Plenipotentiaries to Downing Street and started the negotiations all over again, a different or better result could be had? Would de Valera come back with a Republic on another go?

“He will not,” Staines said in yet another jab at the man whose feelings he professed to care about.

At least the end of the speech was on a pragmatic note. The Dáil had heard about all sorts of laws: international law, constitutional law and common law. But the only type Staines had ever really experienced, “as an ordinary common man” in Ireland, “was the law of force and the law of might.” With the withdrawal of the British Army and its replacement by an Irish one, it would seem that, for once, Irish people would have a chance at deciding what type of freedom they wanted. “I will vote for this Treaty because it stands for Irish freedom against English oppression,” he said as his finishing line, “and Irish sovereignty against English slavery.”[20]

The Dáil debates on the Treaty, 14th January 1922 (source:

Staines was but one speaker amongst many but his contribution was gratefully noted by some journalists, who were observing the proceedings, as “pleasantly brief. How we could wish to see the others follow their example.”[21]

Ruling in Hell or Serving in Heaven

Michael Collins

Another argument for the Treaty were the odds against the IRA should it resume its armed campaign. That the Truce had been agreed to in the first place was due to “the fact that the position of the fighting men was very precarious in view of the grave shortage of ammunition,” according to Staines. He did not state this at the time, perhaps wary of being seen as defeatist, and waited until 1954 to include it in his BMH Statement. That he was in prison for the last seven months of the conflict would raise the question of how informed he could be of IRA strength in July 1921; nonetheless, Staines believed that the paucity of munitions “very definitely influenced [Michael] Collins in his negotiations with the British” that led to the Treaty being signed.[22]

Staines said very little in his BMH Statement about the split following the Treaty and the resultant Civil War; needless to say, his stated wish during the Dáil debates for national unity to be maintained went unanswered. “Big numbers of people were delighted about the Treaty, but some of them turned the other way overnight,” was all he provided, the anger palpable and still raw even after three decades. “Somebody must have got after them.”[23]

When the acrimony of the Treaty debates bled out into the daily work of government, Staines was as guilty as anyone of adding to it. “I am very glad to see that here today Mr de Valera told us that the Dáil was a sovereign assembly,” he told the Dáil on the 27th April 922, the sarcasm practically dripping from his words. “It is wonderful when people are in power how they delegate authority to themselves and, when they are not in power, how they try to take that authority away.”

Group photograph of TDs in January 1922

As catty as Staines sounded, he was raising a pertinent question: from where did the sovereignty of the Irish revolution – now the Irish state – derive? The Cabinet? The Dáil? Both had been used by the Opposition – by which Staines meant the TDs who had resisted the Treaty and still did – at different points, depending on whichever served at the time:

You all remember that the debate here on the Treaty all turned on the one point – that the Plenipotentiaries did not come back and report to the…Cabinet. Now we are told today that the Dáil is a sovereign assembly.

The cause of this apparent volte-face was the accusation from de Valera – now just Mr de Valera, having resigned as President – that Cabinet Ministers were acting without consideration and consultation of the Dáil. In truth, wherever predominance lay had never been determined in the three years since Dáil Éireann and its accompanying government formed in the Mansion House, Dublin, in January 1919. Too much had been happening, and the question too delicate for it to be confronted, let alone solved, but it did leave openings to be exploited in ways that Staines considered the height of hypocrisy:

Today we are told that the Dáil itself is the Government of the country. Of course it is, and of course it was. But when the Opposition was in power it was the Cabinet. They want it different today, because some people would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven.

Staines was evidently acquainted with Paradise Lost if he could quote from it. Several months had passed since the Plenipotentiaries returned with the Treaty and the wounds from the tooth-and-nail struggle over it remained raw and unhealed. Staines was unafraid to bare his to the Dáil, telling the assembly of how he had advised de Valera – back when they were still on civil terms – not to publish his famous letter urging the Irish people against the Treaty. Staines’ reasoning had been that, by doing so as a Cabinet member, the then-President was intruding into the prerogative of the elected assembly.

A meeting of Dáil Éireann in the Mansion House, Dublin

Staines had further advice to give, this time to his colleagues as a whole. “While we are coming here and squabbling for power, people are being slaughtered all over the county,” he warned. “Let the people decide and decide quickly, and let all this squabbling end. We are making a disgrace of ourselves.”[24]

Policing Woes

Eamon Duggan

As before, his advice went unheeded.

But then, Staines was not finding it easy to make himself heard, even with his promotion to Commissioner of the Civic Guard. Intended to replace the disbanded RIC, this new police force was troubled from the start, as the appointment of former RIC officers to senior positions bred resentment in the ranks. Other than the occasional, insubstantial remark from Eamonn Duggan, the Minister for External Affairs, the rest of the Cabinet were largely ignorant of the brewing tensions, assuming, as Ernest Blythe described:

…that it was one of those disputes that would settle itself as similar causes of agitation had settled themselves elsewhere. Then, suddenly, we were told that the bulk of the Civic Guard had mutinied and that they had chased certain of the higher officers, including Michael Staines…Joe Ring and others, out of the camp.[25]

To add insult to injury, the Civic Guard had only been in existence for a few weeks. With the finger of blame needing to be pointed: “According to the report that reached the Government, Staines behaved with singular ineptitude…All Ministers took the view that when Duggan and Staines knew that the situation was really threatening, they should have given a full report to the Government.”[26]

Rory O’Connor

‘Ineptitude’ might be a bit harsh, considering the hurdles Staines faced from the start. The anti-Treaty IRA was never anything but hostile to the fledgling police force; the Civic Guard was both unnecessary and tainted by its (alleged) acceptance of Black-and-Tans, Rory O’Connor told a journalist. What O’Connor did not add was that he was in secret contact with some of the recruits, who had been playing their employer false from the start and were only waiting for the chance to wreak havoc.[27]

And they did. Staines would indignantly learn, as he was campaigning to hold his parliamentary seat in the general election, that some of his supposed subordinates had left their Kildare Barracks on the 15th June 1922 to post handbills around his Dublin constituency “containing baseless statements intended to injuriously affect my candidature as TD,” so he informed the later inquiry into the mutiny. Staines kept his seat but worse betrayal was to follow a mere two days later when Anti-Treatyites from the Four Courts, led by O’Connor, looted Kildare Barracks of its armoury. Adding insult to injury was how this had been done with the connivance of some of the garrison.[28]

Michael Staines and Thomas Murphy, campaigning together in June 1922 (source:

Even without such saboteurs, it is unlikely that the Civic Guard would have gone off to a smooth start, if only for its use of former RIC men in positions of command. As many of the rank-and-file had been trying to kill Crown police personnel only months before as part of the IRA, this was a provocative arrangement. Staines defended it to the inquiry as both necessary – the former RIC men possessing “special qualifications for the posts to which they had been appointed” – and entirely proper, the credentials of the new officers being “satisfying to the Provisional Government” on account of them either having resigned from the RIC or worked as IRA moles within it.[29]

Separating the Sheep from the Goats

None of this was enough for the malcontents, however. But the villain of the piece, in Staines’ eyes, was his Assistant Commissioner, Paddy Brennan, whose unsanctioned absence from Kildare Barracks allowed the dissent to fester at the cost of them all:

I feel that throughout I have had insufficient support from officers who should have known that the weakness in my authority was the sure prelude to the disappearance of their own, and I think they have behaved most unfairly to the men in not explaining matters to them, and bringing them to a sense of their duty.[30]

That is, at least, one version. In reviewing the whole sorry affair, historian Brian McCarthy found more than enough blame to go around, from the arrogance and entitlement of the mutineers to the tone-deaf failure of the Provisional Government to anticipate the resentment the ex-RIC appointments would engender.

As for Staines, McCarthy is particularly damning in his verdict:

While his nationalist credentials as a 1916 veteran and Sinn Féin TD initially satisfied the recruits, he was not keen to take on the role and proved a weak leader. His lack of leadership skills quickly became evident and when threatened with a mutiny over the issue of RIC leadership in the new force, he effectively abandoned his position, fled from his base and Kildare Barracks and was consequently unable to regain control of the force.[31]

Ernest Blythe

Whether anyone else could have done better is debatable; Staines had at least tried to put his foot down on the parade ground on the 15th May 1922, challenging anyone unwilling to obey orders to step forward. The assembled men did more than that, openly revolting and driving their Commissioner and his aides out of Kildare Barracks. A last-ditch attempt by Staines to restore order by calling in armoured military cars floundered when the army officer in charge refused to proceed any further; in this, Staines made the wrong call and the officer the right one, Blythe judged, as the last thing the Provisional Government needed was two of its own bodies at each other’s throats.

If Staines had needed reinforcements, the Cabinet agreed upon reviewing the debacle, he should have requested them “before he made any attempt to separate the sheep from the goats, and not to send for them after the mutiny had broken out.” The steady nerves and finesse Staines demonstrated throughout his IRA career had clearly deserted him at this last hurdle.[32]

While his policing tenure may have been short-lived and ignominious, there is one postscript of note. Staines remained as Commissioner until September 1922, enabling him to put the Civic Guard at the disposal of the Free State when the Four Courts were attacked in June 1922, triggering the Civil War. Armed policemen were placed accordingly around various government buildings in Merrion Square, Stephen’s Green, Kildare Street and other parts of Dublin, as well as elsewhere in the country where railway stations, bridges, culverts and communication centres needed guarding.

“The men were frequently under fire at their posts in the [Dublin] City and Suburbs, where such attacks and sniping were of nightly occurrence,” Staines told the Military Pensions Board in 1925.[33]

A sentry on duty during the Civil War

Staines was not recording this for the sake of posterity; whether the Civic Guard at the time could be counted as part of the ‘National Forces’ would make all the difference in the amount of money he could claim for his past services. This led to some debate on the Board – as someone pointed out, ‘not an unarmed force’ is not quite the same thing as an armed force – until it was decided that the police then did indeed come within the framework of the National Forces. Trust Staines to spin gold even out of straw of failure, ‘cunning twister’ that he was.[34]


[1] Staines, Michael (BMH / WS 944), pp. 25-6

[2] Ibid, pp. 25, 29-30

[3] Gibbons, Seán (BMH / WS 927), p. 56

[4] Ibid, p. 55

[5] Staines, pp. 26

[6] Irish Times, 04/10/1921

[7] Gibbons, p. 55

[8] Staines, pp. 25, 30

[9] Duff, Douglas V. Sword For Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934), pp. 88-90

[10] Staines, pp. 27-8

[11] Irish Times, 05/10/1921

[12] Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. With the Irish in Frongoch (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 28, 166-8

[13] Ibid, pp. 172-3

[14] Ibid. p. 82

[15] Irish Times, 11/12/1921

[16] Staines, p. 13

[17] Irish Times, 11/12/1921

[18] Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999), p. 220

[19] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 57

[20] ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,, pp. 296-8

[21] De Burca and Boyle, p. 62

[22] Staines, pp. 24-5

[23] Ibid, p. 24

[24] Dáil Éireann. Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922]), p. 302

[25] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 154

[26] Ibid, pp. 154-5

[27] McCarthy, Brian. The Civic Guard Mutiny (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 79-80

[28] Ibid, pp. 124, 127-9

[29] Ibid, p. 142

[30] Ibid, p. 144

[31] Ibid, p. 210

[32] Blythe, pp. 154-5

[33] ‘Staines, Michael’ (Military Service Pensions Application, WS24SP6787), pp. 14, 98

[34] Ibid, WS24SPE7, pp. 39, 41



Brennan-Whitmore. W.J.. With the Irish in Frongoch (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Dáil Éireann: Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922?])

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

Duff, Douglas V. Sword for Hire: A Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934)

McCarthy, Brian. The Civic Guard Mutiny (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Sturgis, Mark (edited by Hopkinson, Michael) The Last Days of Dublin Castle: The Mark Sturgis Diaries (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1999)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Gibbons, Seán, WS 927

Staines, Michael, WS 944


Irish Times

Online Resource

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

Military Service Pensions Application

‘Staines, Michael’

Book Review: Soldiers of Liberty: A Study of Fenianism, 1858 – 1908, by Eva Ó Cathaoir (2018)

“There is no time to be lost,” Pierce Nagle told a covert meeting of Fenian officers in Tipperary, in September 1864, as he read out a call for action from their leader, James Stephens:

This year – and let there be no doubt about it – must be the year of action. I speak with a knowledge and an authority to which no man could pretend, and I repeat, the flag of Ireland – of the Irish Republic – must this year be raised. As I am much pressed for time, I shall merely add that it shall be raised in flow of hope such as never beamed around it before. Be, then, of firm faith and best cheer; all goes bravely on.

Stirring words, but his audience might have been more cautious if they had known that Nagle had purloined the letter while its courier was passed out drunk. Further cause for alarm was how Nagle, their supposed comrade in the fight for Irish freedom, was a police informant. Instead of burning the incriminating message immediately after, Nagle passed it on to his paymasters in Dublin Castle, who were already concerned at reports from across Ireland of illicit drills, unruly crowds and mutinous murmurings.

A Fenian flag from 1867, more information here:

Nagle was not the only inside source: a former militia sergeant who had switched to the Fenians in Cork turned his coat again and told a magistrate that his comrades were planning to storm police barracks, steal its weapons and burn the local bishop in tar for his opposition to them. Cork, in particular, was identified by the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Wodehouse, as a hotspot for sedition, as “the feeling in favour of it amongst the small shopkeepers and the young farmers is strong,” he told the home secretary. And not just Cork: “Parts of Kerry, Tipperary and Kilkenny are also affected with a very disloyal spirit.”

But then, the Powers That Be hardly needed traitors and espionage to know that dissent was in the air, thanks to the radical press. ‘The approaching crisis,’ went one headline in the Irish People, and while the topic was ostensibly about potential revolutions elsewhere, in Europe, only an ingénue could fail to see the parallels the newspaper was drawing closer to home. Nonetheless, Dublin Castle hesitated to act for fear of intruding on the sanctity of freedom of speech, long a cornerstone of the British state.

“Press prosecutions are always odious,” admitted Lord Wodehouse, even as he railed against “openly treasonous” material that was being “distributed broadcast through the country and eagerly read by the shopkeepers and peasants.” What’s more, “the office [of the Irish People] is the headquarters of the conspirators.”

James Stephens

Which was why, when it was time to make the mass arrests of Fenian suspects in Dublin and Cork, the office in question was among the places on the police target list. After detaining everyone on the premises and smashing the newspaper’s type, the constabulary would seize and destroy copies of the final issue, for the 16th September 1865, wherever they could be found in the country. Having escaped the initial roundup, Stephens remained at large until his arrest two months later, in November, though neither this setback nor the subsequent legal proceedings dampened his revolutionary ardour. If anything, he seemed to relish the challenge.

“I defy and despise any punishment it can inflict on me,” he told the court, setting a precedent for future generations of Irish Republicans in his refusal to recognise it. “I have spoken.”

Stephens had a presence to match his words. While physically unimpressive in the eyes of a reporter from the London Times – “rather below the middle stature…the front and top [of his head] being entirely bald” – this same onlooker could not help regarding the prisoner with something close to awe:

His manners are gentlemanly, saving a certain abruptness and impatience. He was, however, apparently very much at ease during the day, not at all like a prisoner charged with a great crime, but rather like an attorney watching a case, with a full consciousness of his own superior ability and the goodness of his cause, with sovereign contempt for ‘the other side’.

Charles Kickham

Not many journalists today would write with such gusto. But then, this was a society very much engaged with the written word, from the Fenians’ use of the Irish People as a propaganda tool to the literary ambitions of one of Stephens’ co-defendants, Charles Kickham, whose novel, Sally Cavanagh, had been serialised the year before, in 1864.The title character is forced to endure the unwanted attentions of the landlord when her husband emigrates for want of wages. Sally, of course, resists, as is only proper for a virtuous wife and the stand-in for the Irish nation, leading to one tragedy after another: sent to the workhouse, her children dying in poverty and, finally, going mad just before Mr Cavanagh is able to return with money.

If the melodrama sounds a bit much for modern tastes and its allegory clankingly obvious, then many of Kirkham’s contemporaries would have seen much to relate to in Sally Cavanagh’s plight. The Famine, after all, had been less than three decades ago, when, instead of the expected harvest in 1845, “the air was laden with a sickly odour of death, as if the hand of death had stricken the potato field, and that everything growing in it was rotting.”

So remembered Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, later a man whose funeral became one of the great set-pieces of Irish history, but then a fifteen-year-old boy who had helped bury a starved woman – his poem ‘Jillen Andy’ was written in her memory. Like many other survivors, Rossa blamed the disaster on Perfidious Albion and, while the author Eva Ó Cathaoir notes that the reality was a good deal more complex, with fingers also to be pointed at the realities of human nature – Rossa himself noted how his wealthy relatives refused to assist the rest of the family – the memories of the countrywide death and degradation lived on, fuelling future attempts to shake off the Saxon yoke.

Illustrated depiction of the Great Famine

The Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) was one such enterprise. Stephens took its oath upon its establishment in Dublin, March 1858, and wasted no time in setting off across Ireland, establishing contacts and setting up cell-like ‘Circles’. Many were the IRB’s tactics employed in its goal of an independent nation: infiltrating British forces stationed in Ireland seemed a promising option – after all, 40% of such soldiers were Irish-born, compared to a third of the United Kingdom’s total population – as well as facilitating an invasion/reinforcement of Irish-Americans, recruited from Civil War veterans. Such attempts were considered threatening enough by the authorities to take stern measures, arresting suspected Fenian operatives and putting the Royal Navy on the alert for any Trans-Atlantic incursions.

Nothing came of any of these schemes and perhaps nothing would have even in better circumstances. But the defeat of the Fenians, time and time again, did nothing to stop Fenianism permeating Irish society as a whole – quite the contrary, if anything – as Ó Cathaoir meticulously outlines to her reader.

Charles McCarthy
Memorial cabinet card for Charles McCarthy

Charles McCarthy’s death in 1878, shortly after his thirteen years in prison (being one of the British soldiers covertly sworn into the IRB), allowed public sympathy to turn his funeral into a nationalist demonstration. Fifteen thousand people were reported to have paid their respects on one day alone; this despite his body being barred from church grounds on account of the hostility of Cardinal Paul Cullen to whom Fenianism was “a compound of folly and wickedness wearing the mask of patriotism.” But even Hierarchy apathy was not unanimous. While raising funds for the remaining political prisoners, Archbishop Thomas Croke argued that the likes of McCarthy were worthy not just of sympathy but admiration.

For all “the freaks and infidelity of a few amongst them,” Croke told a disapproving Cullen, “I cannot agree with your eminence that the Fenians have effected no good. They have given us a tolerable land bill and disestablished the Protestant church.”

Not directly, of course; William Gladstone could claim the most credit for the aforementioned, having taken office in 1868 with the intent of solving, or at least mollifying, the problems that had long poisoned Anglo-Irish relations. When the town commissioners of Nenagh proposed a vote of confidence in the Prime Minster, Peter Gill, a radical journalist, remonstrated. Surely the town worthies should thank the Fenians instead, whose actions, however unsuccessful, had drawn Gladstone’s reforming attentions in the first place?

Whether feared or loved, scorned or praised, hopeless failures or moral victors, the Fenians could never be ignored, either by contemporaries or those seeking to understand how Ireland got to be the way it is – and the latter would do well to start here with this engrossing book.


Publisher’s Website: The Lilliput Press


Peculiar Organisations: British Counter-Insurgency and Intelligence in Dublin during the Irish War of Independence, 1920-1

Predator / Prey

It was the classic tale of The One That Got Away: sometime in 1921, Douglas V. Duff was walking along Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Dublin, killing time before catching his train back to his post in Galway. Dressed as he was in civilian clothes, it was unlikely anyone gave Duff a second glance, which was just the way he preferred it, being uncomfortably aware that, as a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), and not just any constable but a Black-and-Tan at that, he was very much in enemy territory.

The Father Theobold Mathew statue in O’Connell Street, Dublin, close to where Duff had his encounter

Part of the British Empire the city may have been but Duff did not delude himself as to who its streets really belonged, nor did he harbour illusions about the risks Ireland had for men like him. Any doubts about the state of the country had been clarified when he stepped off the ship at the North Wall. Several Crossley tenders were waiting to take Duff and the other recruits to the Constabulary Depot in Phoenix Park but it was the four coffins, draped in Union Jacks, on the quays that drew his attention. All victims of ambushes, he was told.

Taking the hint, Duff behaved with suitable caution during his service in Ireland. Nonetheless, when his companion, a cadet in the Auxiliary Division, grabbed his arm and told him who he had just seen on Sackville Street, Duff felt anything but cautious:

Startled – thrilled – I looked and saw that it really was the man whose description hung on every Police Barracks wall in Ireland, together with the announcement that £10,000 was the reward for his capture, and we knew that the authorities cared very little if he were brought in alive or dead.

How often was one likely to see Michael Collins in broad daylight, strolling about town as if without a care in the world? The rebel leader remained blissfully oblivious as the two foes closed in from behind, not even appearing alarmed when the cadet took him by the shoulder and announced that he was under arrest. The only response Collins made was pointing to three men standing by some nearby hoardings. This trio would have been the very picture of idle loitering – that is, if not for the way they were intently watching the unfolding scene with their hands poised in their pockets.

The Big Fella

All it would take, Collins informed his two ‘captors’, was for him to raise his hand and the pair of them would be shot dead. Any help would not arrive until long after he was gone. Recognising discretion as the better part of valour, Duff and the cadet moved aside, allowing Collins to continue on his way with a cheery farewell of “Goodbye, boys.”

And so Duff lost his chance at fame and fortune – and yet, as a wise man by the time he penned his memoirs, he could appreciate his luck as he found it:

Chap-fallen though I felt at the time, I am very glad that I was not the means of capturing the gallant man who so chivalrously spared us, after we had run our heads so hard into the very jaws of the lion.

It is a good story – perhaps a little too good (Duff had a book to sell, after all). But Duff’s account is notable, other than being one of the few perspectives we have from a Black-and-Tan, in how little he glorifies his service in Ireland or tries to convince his reader that it was anything other than an ordeal.

Douglas V. Duff

Before his encounter with Collins, Duff had been delivering dispatches from Galway to Dublin Castle, an assignment he hated due to how nerve-racking he found the journey to the city. Alone and unarmed save for a small grenade Duff kept hidden underneath his train-seat (!), he was entirely at the mercy of whoever took an interest in him. The first time he was sent, his pistol had been confiscated en route at Streamstown Station, Co. Westmeath, by a ‘Shinner’ or Irish Republican Army (IRA) officer – and more might have been taken had Duff not convinced the Irishman that he was but a harmless tourist concerned for his safety.[1]

Enter the New Man

Ormonde Winter

Even senior members of British military personnel could have related to Duff’s stories of being waylaid and the impunity by which it was done. Close shaves had practically become a part of life and those at the very heart of the Crown counter-insurgency, like Ormonde Winter, were not immune.

Appointed Deputy Chief of Police in mid-1920 as a cover for his real role of Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services, Winter had a foreboding forecast of what awaited him when he entered his temporary headquarters at Park Lodge in Dublin. Sentries and barbed wire protected the building, as well as loop-holed steel shutters over the windows and guns at hand during mealtimes – the last precaution proving something of a liability when one of the stewards used one to shoot himself in a fit of depression – and this was during Winter’s first few weeks in Ireland![2]

Dublin Castle entrance (Palace Street Gate)

Moving out of Park Lodge and into the protection of Dublin Castle in early October 1920 allowed the Deputy Chief of Police/Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services a chance to build up the resources at his disposal, practically from scratch – almost two years had passed since the opening shots of the guerrilla campaign at Soloheadbeg in January 1919 and the British state was only just starting to get to grips with the challenge in its Irish backyard. Doing so was possible as India showed but the secret service there had taken years to turn into something competent and Winter, as an old colonial hand, doubted he had the luxury of time.[3]

Complicating his job was how the traditional source on Irish rebel doings was in short supply. “The Irishman’s appetite for gold had been replaced by a surfeit of terror,” as he put it in his memoirs.

Placard found on the body of a victim of an IRA murder

In the space of eight or nine months, Winter could procure only about sixty spies and most of these were dropped due to lack of results. One exception he had hopes in was Vincent Fovargue, a ‘turned’ IRA man whose ‘escape’ from detention Winter staged for the benefit of a good cover story. The would-be agent was later found shot dead on a golf course. Prisoner interrogations likewise proved a dead-end more often than not, since the prior British policy of blanket amnesties had left IRA detainees feeling they had little to fear from the threat of lengthy jail sentences.[4]

But Winter was a trier if nothing else and found another window into the insurgency: correspondence by the IRA leadership from and to their subordinates that the police and British military were liable to uncover in their raids. Of the ten sources of intelligence cited by Winter, from the age-old methods of informants and interrogations to more innovative attempts like listening devices and the reading of letters from gaol, he found captured paperwork to be far the most productive.[5]

Black-and-Tans searching Irish suspects

“It was fortunate that the Irish had an irresistible habit of keeping documents,” Winter gloated. In this, he was inadvertently aided by the IRA GHQ in its demands, issued in mid-1920, for any planned operations to be first submitted to Dublin in writing.  “Nonsensical, unnecessary and farcical,” was the opinion of one IRA officer on this high-risk insistence.[6]

‘The Wolves From the Lambs’

A policy was formulated accordingly by Winter:

Immediately after any raid, all documents were at once admitted by its personnel to a close scrutiny, epitomes completed, and copies made for distribution. Some idea of the amount of work involved may be gathered from the fact that in the Dublin District area from October 1920 to July 1921, 6,311 raids and searches were carried out, and over 12,000 epitomes of captured documents, some consisting of over 200 pages of foolscap, were circulated.

Tellingly, Winter had to stress to the police and soldiers involved the importance of collecting all documents, however minor at first glance, before they got the point. The British machine was only just grasping what it should have known at the start. Winter’s efforts paid off: a Central Raid Bureau was painstakingly formed, complete with a card index and photographic library, allowing Winter to finally get on top of the situation:

A list of all persons arrested was forwarded to me, and the duty devolved on me deciding who should be liberated, interned or prosecuted from the evidence available on the Raid Bureau. During a period of three months, 1,745 arrests were made in the Dublin District alone, in addition to large numbers from the outlying Counties, and so much of my time was spent in sorting out the wolves from the lambs.[7]

One would think that the Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services would have delegated such a time-consuming chore. Perhaps that says something about the resources the British state was willing (or not) to provide – or maybe more about Winter’s micromanaging. He was certainly a hands-on boss, such as on the 2nd July 1921, when news of an IRA-related murder in the Irish midlands reached him. Deciding that this latest killing warranted his personal attention – and possibly to escape the confinement of Dublin Castle – Winter gave orders for a drive to the outskirts of the city. From there, an aeroplane would fly him as the quickest means of transport.

His car was turning left on Cork Hill, with Winter:

…seated on the near rear seat; and I was putting a cigarette in my mouth a shot rang out and a bullet hit my hand an inch below the junction of my thumb and forefinger, passed through my hand and made its exit two inches below my little finger, breaking no bones but severing an artery.

As if that was not enough: “Then came a hail of bullets from every direction.”

IRA members

Thanks to his gun and those of his armed escort, Winter was able to fight off the ambushers, even claiming credit in his memoirs for the slaying of one of them. His experience in hospital seems to have been equally as unpleasant as that of being shot, with a probe pushed through his wound, followed by a dose of antitetanic serum and several sleepless nights: “However, this enforced insomnia gave me plenty of time to ponder on Sinn Fein in general, and their activities in particular.”[8]

Winter does not inform his readers on whether he reached any sort of epiphany on this. A month and a half after his brush his death, the Truce of July 1921 came into effect and subsequently the Anglo-Irish Treaty. While Winter does not seem to altogether approve of this agreement, quoting Winston Churchill’s cutting remarks that “no British government in modern times has ever appeared to make so sudden and complete a reversal of policy”, he also did not sound too distraught about the end of his duties in Ireland.[9]

British troops departing from Dublin, 1922

‘The Heart and Soul of the Whole Conspiracy’

Winter’s narration of his time at the head of the British intelligence service in Ireland is a mix of the sensible and the silly. An example of the latter was the printing apparatus of the Irish Bulletin being seized and used to send out bogus and mocking pseudo-versions of that Republican organ. When it was made known that, from now on, all genuine issues would be known by a special stamp, Winter had that forged and added it to more of his ‘fake news’; amusing, maybe, but what difference was that really going to make?[10]

1100097809_previewAs an historic source, his book has its flaws. No one who suggests that it was the IRA who murdered Tomás Mac Curtain for his supposed wavering or that Dick McKee, Peadar Clancy and Conor Clune were killed while assaulting their guards inside Dublin Castle (with a smuggled grenade, no less) can be read without the slightest raising of the brow. But Winter does clearly convey how the British counter-insurgency was not working on any sort of pre-approved system or formula, being instead an ad hoc, whatever-works-works process.[11]

As Winter was based in Dublin, his experiences and anecdotes tended to involve that city – perhaps a little too much so. At least one British Army source thought the Dublin location of senior policemen to have been problematic since it encouraged the officials to regard themselves as essentially city inspectors rather than seeing Ireland as the big picture.[12]

But then, Dublin was of vital importance, both for the Crown and the Irish insurgency:

Dublin was, and is, the heart and soul of the whole conspiracy. It was the principal military base for all Ireland, also the headquarters of the Viceroy and the Commander in Chief, as well as the site of large and important military stores of explosives and arms.[13]

Written sometime between the Truce of July 1921 and the signing of the Treaty in December, Record of the Rebellion was a review of the Army’s performance in Ireland. Volume IV, ‘Dublin District Historical Records’, dealt with the place in question specifically; after all, “the situation in Dublin was so unique that it was worth considering in some detail.”[14]

Much of the piece is concerned with the logistics of urban conflict, such as the right way of conducting a house-to-house search or how to fine-tune the hours of a city curfew. Regarding intelligence, Record divided the question of responsibility into four distinct periods:

    1. Performed by the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) until the end of 1919, when the IRA campaign of assassinations and intimidation proved too much for the DMP to continue.
    2. The military taking over in early 1920. Progress was limited at first, with the lone junior army officer in charge being “very limited [in what he could do] as he had no organised means of obtaining intelligence.” Personnel in general was scarce, with no intelligence officers higher than at a regimental level, and even these were largely working on their own initiative rather than as part of any overall strategy.
    3. Military intelligence services were reorganised, under a specially selected officer, known as the Special Branch. This worked directly for the army authorities, with brigade and battalion intelligence officers appointed, all of which allowed for a successful coordination between intelligence and ‘street level’ activities. While sources of knowledge remained limited, results overall were good.
    4. This arrangement came to an end in early 1921, when the Special Branch was transferred, with its records, to the Chief of Police, merging with Police Intelligence.

Special Branch was henceforward known as D Branch, headed by the Director of Police Intelligence (Winter, unnamed in the text), who ran what was now a part intelligence, part executive organisation.

‘Bloody Sunday’ in November 1920 was noted as a heavy blow. Several of the most promising intelligence officers had been lost, and the rest found their new headquarters at Dublin Castle and the Central Hotel to be as much constrictive as protective. Nonetheless, it is interesting that this coordinated massacre, often celebrated as the ‘smashing’ of British intelligence, only “temporarily paralysed” the Special Branch in the opinion of the Record.

uneblodysToo Many Cooks over a Broth

Far more damaging to army intelligence was the internal interference, specifically its amalgamation with the police. This, as Record described in detail, was:

…a grave mistake. For personal reasons it was wholly unpopular among the personnel of the Special Branch, and unfortunately personal considerations can rarely be left out of account in questions connected with secret service. The organisation continue to work for the army, but was responsible to a new master, the Chief of Police, consequently the driving power behind the agents gradually diminished.

As a result, what had been a smoothly running machine became entangled in its gears:

Duplicate organisations both to check the police information and to act as a liaison became necessary. The result was delay in taking action, overlapping in work, and a registry created on the lines of compromise and satisfactory to neither military or police.

Neither intelligence nor executive but a mix of both, too self-contained and wilful for the Army’s liking, and overly reliant on enthusiastic amateurs for its members, D Branch was a poor fit for the Dublin war in the Record’s estimation: “A peculiar organisation, as secret services organisations generally are.” That anything was accomplished at all was more due to the talents of individuals than any structural strength:

If all intelligence and all operations in the city had been controlled from one office better results might have been achieved and a great deal of friction and irritation would certainly have been avoided.

Far from being wiped out by Bloody Sunday, there was more British intelligence branches than ever by 1921. Instead, the problem seemed to be there too many, or at least too much overlap in their respective spheres:

    1. D Branch, headed by the Chief of Police – Collating intelligence for Dublin District using informants/agents’ reports (both police and military), DMP reports and captured documents. Responsible for passing information to the below organisations.
    2. General Staff (British Army), Intelligence, Dublin District – Keeping the General Officer Commanding (GOC) updated as to the structure, tactics and intentions of the IRA. Intelligence provided from its own military sources as well as from D Branch.
    3. Raid Bureau, headed by the Chief of Police – Filing all reports on raids, as well as receiving captured documents and weapons.
    4. Registry, headed by the Chief of Police – registering information as it was obtained, and maintaining the personal files and cards on all suspects.[15]

Sir Warren Fisher

If it all looked complicated on paper, then, unsurprisingly, that is exactly how it was in practice. Not that the British state could say it was never warned; a report by Sir Warren Fisher in February 1921 called for an end of inter-branch infringements with the creation of a uniform command system in Dublin, nothing of which was done by the time the war came to a halt five months later in July.[16]

“There were at least three rival intelligence agencies employed by the British and as usual they were all jealous of one another,” remembered one senior DMP officer with a sigh.[17]

Inside Men

The root cause of this unseemly disarray, according to General Nevil Macready, the GOC for Ireland, was because the plan had been to use military intelligence in conjunction with the police system while the latter was being rebuilt:

Events proved, however, in the long run that it would have been better to have relied on a purely military organisation, to be placed at the service of the police, instead of attempting a dual organization, which, with the best of goodwill on both sides, never worked altogether smoothly owing to a diversity of system and the lack of unity in control.[18]

Sir Nevil Macready

In this, Macready echoed the analysis found in the Record. Considering how both the general’s memoirs and the Record were written by soldiers, it is unsurprising that the two texts often shared the same worldview. Neither, for example, had much time for the politicians back home – Macready bemoaned the fluctuating demands from Downing Street, and its inability to settle on either coercion and conciliation as the policy for Ireland, while the Record would point to “political considerations”, along with “legal technicalities” (like the Army’s lack of authority for summary executions), as the reasons for the failure to crush the insurgency.[19]

One notable divergence, however, is that Macready was fully aware of the IRA’s own intelligence system “which spread its tentacles throughout every grade of the population”, most notably in its informants positioned “throughout the police and Government offices in Dublin.” For all his disdain for everything Irish – much aired throughout his two-volume autobiography – Macready was astute enough to grasp the perils of employing the same demographic the enemy also drew from: “These men, mostly of the same social class as the rebels, were many of them in sympathy in Sinn Fein.”

In comparison, Record’s awareness of the problem seems to have been rather limited, putting the “continued leakage of information” down to “injudicious talking in some cases” as well as “deliberate treachery in others”, and even in the cases of the latter, suspicion fell no further than on clerical workers or repairmen working in barracks. Even at the time the Record was written, in late 1921, its authors should have known about the number of DMP officers who had been not so much leaking as pouring state secrets to Michael Collins – admittedly more of a police problem than an Army one, but a major cause, all the same, of why the British counter-insurgency struggled to contain, let defeat the IRA.[20]

Winter was even worse, making no reference at all in his memoirs to either David Neligan, Eamon Broy or James McNamara, all prominent DMP moles who had been working to undermine Winter’s intelligence system as arduously as he built it. Perhaps Winter found it too awkward to talk about, but this omission does lead to some curious blind spots in his narrative that might otherwise compliment British counter-intelligence, such as the arrest of Eileen McGrane, Collins’ private secretary. This not only came with a vanload of captured paperwork from her office – a major coup in itself – but led to Broy’s exposure when some of these catches were traced back to documents he had typed, a fact (ruefully) described by Broy in his own reminiscences but not in Winter’s.[21]

Eamon Broy (in the uniform of his later career in the Gardaí

Spilled secrets also snagged McNamara, though, in this case, it was largely his own fault. A dispatch to Dublin Castle, complaining about reports of American sailors handing weapons to the IRA, found its way into the eager hands of the Sinn Féin Publicity Bureau. Its publication provoked a diplomatic row between the United States and Britain but also gave McNamara away since he was the confidential clerk who had handled it. McNamara’s sacking and Broy’s imprisonment left Neligan as the last of the top DMP spies, much to his consternation.

“It set me wondering when my number would come up!” he wrote later.[22]

Spy Game

David Neligan

It never did. Neligan’s cover survived to the end of the War; indeed, his former superiors in Dublin Castle, still none the wiser, would express surprise at how quickly he obtained his new job in the Irish Provisional Government at the start of 1922. His insider status at the British headquarters allowed him access to the ‘G-man’s diary’, a large calf-bound tome with all the daily reports of DMP detectives recorded. While Neligan had a poor opinion on the type of updates – quantity over quality seems to have been the order of the day – “all the same there was always a danger a G-man might stumble on something, as they knew a lot of people.”

Similarly, whenever Neligan found himself in another police station in Dublin, he took the chance, if he could, to peruse the Occurrence Book that covered anything of note. One such nugget was the role of a certain army captain in the raid on the Exchange Hotel which saw the killing of John Lynch on the grounds that the Sinn Féin County Councillor had allegedly opened fire on the soldiers first with a revolver, a claim Neligan did not believe for a second: “Lynch was an elderly man who, though a sympathiser, was never in the army wing of Sinn Fein.” The captain’s name was passed on to Collins to add to the list of British secret servicemen in Dublin: come November 1920 and the man was among the dead of Bloody Sunday.[23]

Photo believed to be of the so-called ‘Cairo Gang’, consisting of British agents in Dublin,

There were, however, limits to what even a well-placed source like Neligan could provide. After taking a lunch break from his secret office in Mary Street, Collins decided on a hunch not to return, and fortunately so, for the place was searched later that day by Auxiliaries. Though they found nothing more incriminating than a fountain pen and a personal letter, it had been a close shave. Worse were the implications of the incident happening at all, according to Neligan:

This raid smelled of treachery and was certainly no fluke. Especially, as, some days earlier, they had raided next door to another secret office.

Despite Neligan being in the perfect place to root out this betrayal, “we never discovered the source of this information. It looked as if someone had betrayed him. It shook him at the time.” The strain was beginning to show on the famously daredevil Collins, his pale, careworn appearance shocking Neligan on one occasion in early 1921. IRA success at thwarting British spies had not been able to stem the problem altogether, as Neligan lamented: “So many worked for the British that it was impossible to counter all.”[24]

While Collins would remain at liberty until the Truce of 1921, not everyone would be so lucky. Eileen McGrane’s arrest and the loss of the documents in her keeping had been due to a “person of loyalist viewpoint”, according to Broy – whether anything was done about this grievous breach in security is not recorded by him. Another critical capture was that of Seán Mac Eoin, picked out from the train at Mullingar station by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Mac Eoin had been returning to his command area in Longford after reporting to GHQ in Dublin, the sort of journey that was as much a danger for country IRA officers as it was for soldiers on the other side like Duff.

Seán Mac Eoin

Mac Eoin’s presence in Dublin and itinerary back home had been leaked by a female acquaintance who he was using as a courier to the rest of the Longford IRA. The woman passed on the orders as instructed – and then went straight to her uncle, a retired RIC constable. At least, this is the conjecture on the part of Ann Farrington, the manager of the Crown Hotel in Dublin, who claimed to have seen Mac Eoin together with the unnamed woman in question.[25]

Regardless of the truth of this, the police team at Mullingar was unlikely to have been there by coincidence. Mac Eoin’s loss was a matter of considerable vexation to Collins, who ordered several attempts to rescue him (none of which succeeded), as well as a blow to the Longford IRA, who were never quite the same without their talented commander.[26]

Murder Gang?

Little wonder then that IRA Volunteers in Dublin sometimes grew a little highly-strung. The first time Dan Breen arrived in the city in early 1919 from Co. Tipperary, along with Seán Treacy, Seán Hogan and Séumas Robinson, they could walk around together freely and undisguised. This was despite all four being Ireland’s most wanted men from their role in the Soloheadbeg ambush. The DMP by that time had had a ‘live and let live’ attitude with the rebels, if they were not actively aiding their cause, and those policemen sent up from Tipperary were sensible enough to turn their heads should they chance upon any of the quartet.[27]

Left to right: Séumas Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Seán Hogan

As time went on, the pressures of being on the run began to get to Breen:

I was becoming obsessed with the idea that if I remained in Dublin my days were numbered. The British had touts and spotters everywhere. They had promised liberal rewards for information, at this time they were masking desperate attempts to restore their Secret Service and match it with ours.

Letters were opened in the post; hotel servants were bribed; an elaborate system of telephone-code was arranged for the touts and spotters. Is it surprising that in such circumstances I was often hard pressed to make my escape.[28]

It was not just paranoia. One of these escapes was from a tram near the city centre, when five plainclothes policemen stepped on board. Sitting on a three-seater bench at the rear of the upper half, just at the top of the stairs, Breen kept his cool as two of the newcomers sat on either side of him, while a third stood opposite, holding the railings. Knowing he was cornered, Breen continued to do nothing, as much for lack of options as anything. He was starting to relax as the tram passed through Parnell Street, thinking that perhaps the recognition had not been mutual, when he saw the pair seated next to him reaching for their hip-pockets.

Dublin trams

But Breen was quicker, pulling out his own revolver and chasing the trio down the stairs, following them as they jumped from the moving tram, into Dorset Street. Not wanting to risk a fire-fight, and conscious of enemy reinforcements that were liable to appear, Breen walked away, managing to lose his pursuers in the crowd of pedestrians.[29]

He would live to fight another day, having had a narrow escape from the ‘Murder Gang’, as he and other IRA men would know it by:

This group was composed of about fifteen RIC men from various parts of the country where the IRA were most active. Each had been attached to the political branch of the force in his own district for a number of years, and it was his business to know all the Volunteers in the neighbourhood. They were now on the lookout for country Volunteers in the streets of Dublin, and it was their business to murder them.[30]

From then on, Breen would make sure of not going anywhere unless in the company of Seán Treacy who was, like Breen, quick with a gun. Treacy would not survive the war, dying in a shootout on Talbot Street in October 1920. In the hours before, Breen had seen one of the policemen from the tram encounter trailing him and Treacy, presumably all the way to where the latter would be gunned down. When the body was brought to Dublin Castle, Winter was able to identify it with one of his photographs from his considerable collection.[31]

Crowd gathered around the bodies of Seán Treacy and three others killed in the shoot-out on Talbot Street, October 1920

Identification Squad?

As two men on opposing sides in a war, Breen and Winter probably would not have seen eye to eye on a lot of things. Winter’s depiction of this ‘Murder Gang’ in his own autobiographical output, however, does chime for the most part with Breen’s (albeit with a far less sinister name bestowed). With the DMP too intimidated (or compromised) to perform much in the way of intelligence work, and the IRA leaders in Dublin so far unknown to the authorities, Winter:

…asked [General Henry] Tudor [Police Advisor to Dublin Castle] for permission to form an “Identification Squad” under the leadership of a reliable Head Constable. These men were either old members of the Special Branch or experienced members of the local police, and two of these were selected from each county. Their duties were to wander the streets in twos or threes, attired in plain clothes. This led to a few arrests.[32]

Winter did not give his readers the name of this Head Constable, although he was, of course, aware of it, and would go on to write in support of Eugene Igoe’s pension application in 1922, emphasising “the Head Constable’s loyalty and devotion to duty and his quite exceptional danger.”[33]

Joe Howley

To be a member of the Crown forces in Ireland at this time was indeed a risk, although, to hear his enemies speak of Igoe, the danger was as much from him as to him. Charlie Dalton and the rest of Collins’ ‘Squad’ first became aware of Igoe and his group with the slaying of a Volunteer called Joe Howley, shot dead at Broadstone Station in January 1921. While the Squad had made assassination its speciality, repeating a Bloody Sunday on this new foe was complicated by members of the latter being not nearly as careless as the British officers gunned down on November 1920. Their walks across the city were intentionally varied, making tracking difficult, and the physical appearance of many, including Igoe’s, an unknown, prompting the Dublin IRA to invite Thomas Newell, a Volunteer from Galway who had known the Head Constable in his native county.

Dalton was alone in the Squad’s office on Crow Street when Newell rushed in to say he had aspied Igoe and his colleagues walking up Grafton Street, towards St Stephen’s Green. After sending instructions for the rest of the Squad, on ‘stand by’ in their other base at Upper Abbey Street, to assemble at St Stephen’s Green, Dalton went with Newell. His plan was to ambush the enemy on the west side of the square in the assumption they were heading to Harcourt Street Railway Station; instead, the two IRA pursuers found themselves surrounded by their intended targets on Grafton Street, near Weir’s jewellery store.

Weir’s Sons jewelry store, Grafton Street

The Igoe Gang had developed the technique of strolling along the streets in a loose, seemingly casual formation that could nonetheless regroup in strength, like the fingers of a clenching fist, when a Volunteer was chanced upon. This tactic worked a treat on Dalton and Newell, who were then escorted, quietly but firmly, to Dame Street and stood against a wall, a policeman on either side of both captives and far apart enough for them not to hear each other’s answers as Igoe questioned them in turn. Pedestrians meanwhile passed by, oblivious to the double interrogation going on and, in one version of Dalton’s story (he told the tale twice in his memoirs), he even spotted Vincent Byrne and other Squad members hurrying to the intended rendezvous spot.

Newell finally lost his temper and admitted who he was, giving the game away and ending their talk. Dalton was told to walk away and not look back; convinced that the policemen were still following him, he managed to move slowly until turning a corner, upon which he broke into a run and did not stop until reaching his father’s workplace in the city, practically collapsing as he stepped over its threshold. He recovered sufficiently to get back in touch with the rest of the Squad and though they returned to Dame Street, Igoe, Newell and the rest were already gone.

Members of the ‘Squad’

Dalton later heard that Newell had been shot – “riddled” as he put it – and badly wounded. So distressed was Dalton by the experience that he later refused an order to identify Igoe at a restaurant the Head Constable was said to be dining in – and this from a hardened killer who had pulled a trigger on Bloody Sunday. Despite the Igoe Gang now being the number one target for every Dublin-based IRA unit, “many abortive attempts were made, without the desired effect” and it remained “one of the most difficult and dangerous forces opposed to the IRA in Dublin” until the Truce.[34]

“I am sorry to say that this was the nearest we ever got to the Murder Gang,” said another Squad member, William James Stapleton, about Dalton’s and Newell’s failed venture to trap Igoe. “I think, if we have any disappointments I consider, this to all of us would be one of the major ones.”[35]

The Coup de Graces That Never Were?

However good they were at their job, whether as a ‘Murder Gang’ or ‘Identification Squad’, Igoe’s team was not enough to make a critical difference in the Dublin war; even Winter regarded its impact as more physiological than anything else: “No longer could the [IRA] leaders visit the city in safety.” That Winter believed, even by the time he penned his autobiography in 1955, that the IRA leadership were visitors to Dublin and not residents exposes a blind spot in his knowledge, and yet another damning indictment of the British counter-insurgency’s failure to fully grasp the nature of its challenge.[36]

British soldiers overlooking Dublin

Nonetheless, Winter’s tenure as Chief of the Combined Intelligence Services, from October 1920 to July 1921, saw a number of wins scored in Dublin:

  • The location and death of Seán Treacy on October 1920.
  • The location and capture of Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, Commandant and Vice Commandant of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively, in November 1920.
  • The identification of every Volunteer in a Dublin IRA company due to the interrogation of Vincent Fovargue.
  • The unmasking of James MacNamara and Eamon Broy as IRA moles within the DMP.
  • Raids on two of Collins’ personal intelligence offices as well as that of Mulcahy, resulting in the seizure of a cache of sensitive documents, including Sinn Féin and IRA codes.[37]

Major-General Gerald Boyd

Would all this have been enough had the war continued on past July 1921? Certain British sources assumed so. “Well, Jeune, I think we have broken the back of the movement now, don’t you?” Major-General Boyd, GOC of Dublin District, told intelligence officer Captain R.D. Jeune at the start of 1921. Jeune concurred, with an estimation of six more months before the victorious end.[38]

Unlike Jeune, the Record hedged its bets on an exact finish, but nonetheless believed that the Dublin IRA had been reduced to a shadow of its former self by the time of the Truce: “The coup de grace might have taken a little longer, but, given real power [emphasis in text], it was inevitable.” That this ‘real power’ had been constantly withheld was apparently the fault of politicians in Whitehall, not the Army’s. Yet, at the same time, the Record complained of its difficulty in identifying suspects, even important ones such as Collins and Mulcahy, both of whom had been arrested, twice and once respectively: “In all these cases no one was present who knew Collins or Mulcahy by sight, and they were released” – hardly the sign of a military machine on the verge of a breakthrough.[39]

On the other side of the question, could the IRA have continued on in Dublin? Even the best of its operatives were struggling with the mental pressures of life on the run – Dalton’s encounter with Igoe frayed his nerves enough to put him out of commission for weeks. And, as Assistant Director of Intelligence, Frank Thorton doubted that the insurgency in Dublin was sustainable for much longer, although he put that down to its paucity in weapons and ammunition rather than any skill or effort on the part of the British.

British soldiers and Irish civilians in Dublin

Such a shortage did not deter plans for a major operation, one to wipe out every enemy agent, Secret Service man, Auxiliary and Black-and-Tan in the city. To this end, the Dublin IRA Brigade was mobilised, along with the Squad and every other armed unit at hand, and the man put in positon, waiting for the allocated time to strike. With only half an hour left, instructions came through to stand down. Negotiations that would result in the Truce were due to commence, and jaw-jaw over war-war was now the order of the day.[40]

At least, this is according to Thorton, written at the end of his reminiscences. It was a good way to end his story, perhaps a little too good – another tale of The Ones That Got Away.


[1] Duff, Douglas V. Sword For Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934), pp. 54, 78-81

[2] Winter, Ormonde. A Winter’s Tale: An Autobiography (London: The Richards Press, 1955), p. 289

[3] Ibid, p. 293

[4] Ibid, pp. 295, 300, 305-6

[5] Ibid, pp. 294-5

[6] Ibid, p. 303 ; Walsh, Richard (BMH / WS 400), p. 66

[7] Winter, pp. 304-5

[8] Winter, pp. 333-4

[9] Ibid, p. 342

[10] Ibid, pp. 307-8

[11] Ibid, pp. 291, 322-3

[12] Sheehan, William. Fighting for Dublin: The British Battle for Dublin, 1919-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2007), p. 147

[13] Ibid, p. 79

[14] Ibid, p. 138

[15] Ibid, pp. 143-7

[16] Hittle, J.B.E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War (Washington, DC: Potomic Books, 2011), p. 190

[17] Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), p. 73

[18] Macready, Neil. Annals of an Active Life, Volume II (New York: George H. Dolan Company, 1925), pp. 462-3

[19] Ibid, p. 463 ; Sheehan. Fighting for Dublin, p. 79

[20] Ibid, pp. 463-4 ; Ibid, pp. 42-3

[21] Winter, p. 328 ; Broy, Eamon (BMH / WS 1280), pp. 105, 108

[22] Neligan, p. 130

[23] Ibid, pp. 106-7, 123, 154

[24] Ibid, pp. 146-7

[25] Broy, p. 105 ; Farrington, Ann (BMH / WS 749), pp. 4-5

[26] Stapleton, William James (BMH / WS 822), p. 51 (for an example of the attempts made to rescue Mac Eoin) ; McKeon, James (BMH / WS 436), p. 21 (on the state of the Longford IRA after Mac Eoin’s arrest)

[27] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 78

[28] Ibid, p. 131

[29] Ibid, pp. 133-4

[30] Ibid, p. 131

[31] Ibid, 134-5, 137 ; Winter, p. 319

[32] Winter, pp. 337-8

[33] Hittle, p. 279

[34] Dalton, Charles. With the  Dublin Brigade: Espionage and Assassinations with Michael Collins’ Intelligence Unit (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), pp. 152, 224-31

[35] Stapleton, p. 77

[36] Winter, p. 338

[37] Hittle, pp. 231-2

[38] Sheehan, William. British Voices from the Irish War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2005), p. 90

[39] Ibid. Fighting for Dublin, pp. 74, 80

[40] ‘Dalton, Charles’ (Military Service Pensions Application, DP/4), p. 101 ; Thorton, Frank (BMH / WS 615), pp. 59-60



Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Dalton, Charles. With the Dublin Brigade: Espionage and Assassination with Michael Collins’ Intelligence Unit (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

Duff, Douglas V. Sword For Hire: The Saga of a Modern Free-Companion (London: John Murray, 1934)

Hittle, J.B.E. Michael Collins and the Anglo-Irish War (Washington, DC: Potomic Books, 2011)

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Volume II (New York: George H. Dolan Company, 1925)

Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999)

Sheehan, William. British Voices from the Irish War of Independence, 1918-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2005)

Sheehan, William. Fighting for Dublin: The British Battle for Dublin, 1919-1921 (Cork: The Collins Press, 2007)

Winter, Ormonde. A Winter’s Tale: An Autobiography (London: The Richards Press, 1955)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broy, Eamon, WS 1280

Farrington, Ann, WS 749

McKeon, James, WS 436

Stapleton, William James, WS 822

Thorton, Frank, WS 615

Walsh, Richard, WS 400

Military Service Pensions Application

‘Dalton, Charles’, DP/4

Woe to His Enemies: Joe McGrath and the Scramble for Power in a New Ireland, 1921-4

Tying the Loose Ends

Thomas McLaughlin

It was a plan intended to revitalise Ireland but the Shannon Scheme had barely begun before grinding to a halt, its continuation uncertain and its future in doubt. Two years before, in 1923, an excited young engineer, Thomas McLaughlin, had brought to the attention of the Minster for Industry and Commerce, Joe McGrath, a daring alternative to the use of peat and coal that seemed inadequate for the needs of the new Irish state: a hydroelectric dam of the sort McLaughlin had just witnessed in action in Bavaria. And not just Germany – France, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada and the United States were also embracing this innovation in power generation.

“Why not in Ireland?” McLaughlin asked.

The Irish Government could think of a few reasons as to that: doubts in McLaughlin’s ability to pull off what he promised, their laissez-faire faith in private enterprise over public works and the sheer incongruity of applying what sounded almost like science fiction to the slump economics of 1920s Ireland. But, by June 1925, McLaughlin’s enthusiasm and the demands of a country increasingly ill-served by its patchwork of small private electricity firms were enough to convince President W.T. Cosgrave to sign into effect the Shannon Electricity Bill. The otherwise unremarkable village of Ardnacrusha, Co. Clare, was chosen as the site of the dam-to-be on the Shannon River, and the services of 3,000 labourers were advertised accordingly.

Turbines under construction at Ardnacrusha, 1920s

And that’s when the problems really began. The offered wage of thirty-two shillings for a fifty-hour week seemed absurdly miserly and the conditions workers were expected to live in – sometimes no better than the floor of a barn – downright Dickensian. With the unions calling for a strike and not so much as a sod yet turned, Cosgrave was, in the words of one of his Ministers, Ernest Blythe, “at a loose end.”

In was brought McGrath, the man who had first listened to McLaughlin’s proposal. No longer was he the Minister for Industry and Commerce, having resigned a few months before due to that peculiar business with the military. Now appointed the Director of Labour for the Shannon Scheme, his brief was first to get the Government’s flagship project going and then to keep it that way.

And he did. Ruthlessly. First, according to Blythe:

He brought with him to Ardnacrusha some of the men with whom he had been associated in Army Intelligence, or whom he had got to know at the time of the [Army] Mutiny.

When the issue of pay for the workers caused talks with the unions to flounder, McGrath decided to bring in his own for the first and form his own for the second. The aforementioned ex-servicemen provided the basis of this alternative workforce, with decoy ‘unions’ set up in the Ardnacrusha camp to block troublemakers and weed out uppity types, as well as providing a mercilessly effective informer network. For those problems that lingered, a ‘heavy gang’ was at hand to enforce ‘law and order’ – as defined by The Man, of course.

Joe McGrath

In the space of three months, the strike was broken. McGrath, to quote one historian, “had out-flanked and out-played the unions.” With victory won and his foes crushed, McGrath was free to continue on for the next four years as Director – or Dictator – of Labour “in conditions never far from toppling into anarchy.”

However perilously close, total disarray was nonetheless avoided, despite the stories in the newspapers of workers and their families living in pigsties or of the fifteen men paying rent to sleep together on old hay thrown on the floor. When pressed by muck-raking journalists, the Camp Commandant at Ardnacrusha alternated from denying the problems or refusing responsibility for them – as Captain W.J. Stapleton had been handpicked by McGrath for the position, he was hardly going to do or say anything different.

After all, “it was popularly believed that hereafter, a man working on the Shannon Scheme could not curse the weather without his words being reported to Joe,” as Blythe admiringly described. July 1929 came and the Cosgrave administration’s bold new step into the future was launched – as per schedule – on the 22nd, for which Blythe knew who they had to thank: “[McGrath] ensured that Ardnacrusha came in on time to the delight of the Government.”[1]

W.T. Cosgrave (front, in the bowler hat) and other dignitaries at the opening of the Shannon Scheme, Ardnacrusha, 1929

“Our First Duty”

A very different McGrath had stood before the Dáil Éireann three years previously in the National University, Dublin, on the 7th January 1922, to explain why he was voting for the motion before them: the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty. For the past fifteen years he had been a Republican, he said, back when Republicanism was neither widespread nor particularly popular. Even so, he did his best to have like-minded candidates elected, which meant going into the homes of prospective voters in Dublin, slums and all, to state the case for Sinn Féin.

Treaty debates
The Treaty debates, held inside the National University (now the National Concert Hall), Dublin

“Oh, you are the same as the others,” one man – McGrath judged him to have been a hungry man – had told him. “If you people get into power, the workers will be just the same.”

McGrath had replied that, as far as he and his Sinn Féin colleagues could manage, workers like him would be put on the level that they should be. Whether this promise had made any impact on the hungry man is unknown but the exchange left its mark on McGrath, as had the words of the Democratic Programme which Sinn Féin adopted when finally triumphant in the 1918 General Election.

demprog2019jpgIts length deterred McGrath from quoting it in full; instead, he read out one choice passage:

It shall be the first duty of the Government of the Republic to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children; to secure that no child shall suffer from hunger, cold, lack of clothing or shelter, but that they shall be provided with the means and facilities requisite for their proper education and training as citizens of a free and Gaelic Ireland.

“There you have it,” McGrath told the assembled TDs in the chamber. “Our first duty.”

Thanks to the Treaty and the powers it conferred, they would at last have the means to put the ideals of the Democratic Programme from paper into practice. Not that anyone in the opposition would concede as much or that there was anything good in the Treaty; in that, they were very well-disciplined, McGrath noted sardonically. And yet these same naysayers were prepared to consider the “alternative proposals” that had been brought before the Dáil the other day – by this, McGrath meant Document No. 2 – which would have bound Ireland just as much to the British Crown as the Treaty.

At this point, President Éamon de Valera, as Document No.2’s originator, felt obliged to step in, with Mary MacSwiney as backup:

De Valera: Again I ask you is it fair to have that document [No. 2] discussed in detail when I have been prevented from bringing forward that document and explaining it as an alternative?

McGrath: I am not discussing it. I am only giving my reason why I would have as much objection to that document as to the Treaty.

MacSwiney: The oath is not in the document.

McGrath: It is there in the document.

Éamon de Valera

McGrath’s speech was shifting from the practicalities of the Treaty to the perceived hypocrisies of its opponents. Had not Deputy Harry Boland, who he saw was present, told him he was returning to the United States on the President’s instructions “to do an awful thing”, as McGrath put it: preparing the American people (or at least the Irish portion) for something short of a Republic?

“Short of an isolated Republic,” de Valera interjected again.

“Something short of a Republic,” McGrath insisted. Boland had spoken before of compromise, even if that word had not been used, and now here he was demanding quite the opposite. “I won’t say what happened in the meantime.”[2]

Taking the Gloves Off

Harry Boland

McGrath’s snideness and insinuations were not one-sided; when he had first started to speak by announcing himself as having always been as “an out and outer” in regards to British rule, Boland retorted with: “You mean a down and outer” – a jab at the perceived defeatism of the Treaty.[3]

That the two men once worked closely together was a sad reflection of those turbulent times. ’12 Sept [1921]. Mon. Leave Dublin for Scotland with J. McGrath,’ Boland wrote in his diary the previous year. Their mission was to see the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, at his summer retreat at Flowerdale House, Gairloch, on the Scottish west coast. There, the pair delivered de Valera’s latest round in the negotiations over Ireland’s exact relationship with its historic possessor – and promptly found themselves trapped between the displeasure of two political titans.

David Lloyd George

For Lloyd George, reference in the correspondence to Ireland as ‘a sovereign State’ was a separation too far. De Valera, in turn, was none too happy to learn that his emissaries had agreed to return to Ireland with his offending letter officially undelivered. Mercifully, it was not all business, with McGrath and Boland treating themselves to the Navan Races together on the 16th September 1921. The British Cabinet was later appraised about the “two Sinn Féin couriers who came to Gairloch, one whom was an out and out extremist” – disappointingly, without a specification as to which of the duo was considered the hardliner.[4]

Flowerdale House, Gairloch, Scotland

Whatever bonds formed did not survive the turmoil of the following year as pro and anti-Treaty TDs continued to gnaw at each other, prompting McGrath to complain during one Dáil session, on the 2nd March 1922, that “there has been too much winking at things here in the Dáil. We stood for it too long.”

At this, his former companion to Gairloch sprang into action:

Boland: Take the gloves off.

McGrath: I will take the gloves off. We have men standing on the platform with Deputy de Valera today who led the attack on me and my colleague in Smithfield five or six years ago and threw lime in our eyes.

Boland: Name!

McGrath: I will name him if it is asked – Councillor Paul.

Boland: Where is he? He is not here.

McGrath: I made it plain that he was on the platform. I have spoken of him standing on the platform with Deputy de Valera.

Boland: Put the gloves on again.[5]

By ‘Smithfield’, McGrath was presumably referring to the General Election of 1918 or the earlier by-elections in which he had played a prominent part as a Sinn Féin organiser. He did not, however, elaborate. Nor did Boland when, later that session, told McGrath: “I was not out with a muck-rake like you anyway.” McGrath first demanded to know what Boland meant by that, then asked for the remark to be withdrawn.

“I never abused personal confidence,” was all Boland said in response, rather cryptically.[6]

A Rough Customer?

The struggle escalated beyond the verbal. As the Civil War raged on, McGrath was appointed Director of Intelligence for the Free State forces and it was “in that capacity [that] he presided over some of the more grisly aspects of the treatyites’ counter-insurgency policy,” according to historian John M. Regan.[7]

Noel Lemass

Actually, pinning anything definite on McGrath is not an easy task. When Cyril Bretherton, a journalist for the Dublin-based Morning Post at the time, wrote in his 1925 book The Real Ireland that “responsibility for the murder of Lemass was brought home with reasonably certainty to Joe MacGrath [sic],” McGrath successfully sued the publishers. The Lemass in question was Noel (brother of the future Taoiseach), found murdered on the Featherbed Mountain, Co. Wicklow, in October 1922.

Bretherton had identified the motive for the deed as revenge for an ambush on Free State officers near Leeson Street Bridge, Dublin. This statement was without foundation, stated the Lemass family, and McGrath similarly denied any involvement in Lemass’ death, as he also rejected another statement of Bretherton’s: “It is considered pretty certain that [McGrath] knows who were the men implicated in the attack made last year on British troops in Queenstown” [now Cobh, Co. Cork]. As The Real Ireland was out of print by the time the libel suit came before the King’s Bench Division in London in 1927, the publishers were happy to withdraw any imputation against McGrath and cover his legal expenses in return for the case being dropped.[8]

Since Bretherton never elaborated further, it is impossible to judge the merit of his claim. On other occasions in the Civil War, McGrath does not come across as especially bloodthirsty or vindictive; quite the contrary, if anything. While a peace-brokering initiative between the warring factions in Dublin came to naught, at least one Anti-Treatyite who attended the meeting in a house at Harold’s Cross walked away thinking the invitation on McGrath’s part had been sincere.

Todd Andrews in later years

“I think…that the McGrath initiative was genuinely well meant, not merely an effort to accentuate division in our ranks for propaganda purposes,” Todd Andrews wrote in his memoirs. “McGrath had a very soft corner in his heart for the men of the Fourth [Dublin] Battalion. In later and less unhappy times he gave generous evidence of this trait.”[9]

The Irish Sweepstakes, set up in part by McGrath in 1930, ostensibly as a charitable venture, allowed him to demonstrate this tender spot. Eithne Coyle had been living in, if not quite poverty, then at least straitened circumstances since her side lost the Civil War:

When the Sweep started in 1930, I wrote to Joe McGrath and told him I had no job. He invited me to come in. Like a lot of Republicans, I got my first steady job there. He was a rough customer, but good at the back of it all.[10]

It was not all goodwill and giving. McGrath had taken some persuading at the Cabinet meeting in December 1922 to agree to the executions of Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett. But agreed to them he eventually did. Reprisal almost came in the form of the Anti-Treatyites’ ‘creasing squad’ who were particularly keen to assassinate the enemy Director of Intelligence. Once, a hit team burst into the Department of Commerce in Lord Edward Street, expecting to find their target.

Anti-Treaty IRA members walking down Grafton Street, Dublin

Luckily for McGrath, he was elsewhere.[11]

‘A Curious Role’

Intrigue did not cease at the end of the Civil War. No sooner had the Free State put down one military uprising when it was confronted with another in the form of the Army Mutiny in 1924. Threatened with redundancy in the event of demobilisation, certain officers formed the Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO) to act as a pressure group on the Government. Other grievances included a withholding of promotions, a monopoly on influence by the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and – if one was to accredit any selfless aspirations – a belief that the Free State was losing its Republican roots.

As for McGrath, he, as historian Michael McCarthy put it, “played a curious role in the affair.”[12]

McGrath himself might have countered with ‘helpful’ or even ‘misunderstood’:

My efforts to settle this thing extend over fifteen or sixteen months. I tried everything humanely possible to bring about a settlement, but without result. I am satisfied I took the right action.

Certainly, when McGrath addressed the Dáil on the matter in March 1924, it was with a palpably martyred air:

I do say it is shameful; it is disgusting; and I do hope it will never happen to another Minister of the Free State, that when he takes action for honest motives this method will be used to place him in a false position before the public.[13]

McGrath was speaking the day after a raid by Free State soldiers on Devlin’s Public House in Parnell Street, Dublin. This establishment had been frequented by IRAO members and so it was unsurprising that a number of them were found inside on the evening of the 18th March 1924. What complicated the situation was: (1) the IRAO members were carrying guns, (2) the soldiers lacked the authority to enter Devlin’s.

Devlin’s Public House, Parnell Street, Dublin (now demolished)

A stand-off ensued. The soldiers held off for the moment, keeping the mutineers penned in with the warning that they would be arrested upon stepping outside; meanwhile, the Adjutant-General, Gearóid O’Sullivan, was telephoned for further instructions. By the time O’Sullivan ordered the public house to be breached, the IRAO had barricaded the stairs, readying themselves for a re-enactment of the Alamo.

Liam Tobin

Despite this show of defiance, the soldiers, now reinforced, were able to arrest most of their targets without violence once assurances of safety were given. Two exceptions, Major-General Liam Tobin and Colonel Charlie Dalton, had been able to escape across the rooftops, after which they used their freedom to telephone various Government Ministers.[14]

If it was help the two IRAO men were asking for, then McGrath was willing to give it. Accompanied by Dan MacCarthy, a fellow TD and long-time friend (the pair had worked extensively together in the by-elections of 1917), the Minister for Commerce and Industry arrived on the scene, according to an Army report, and proceeded to take advantage of Devlin’s facilities in asking “permission to stand the prisoners a drink – permission for which was not refused in the circumstances.”

The Minister was not just there to be chummy, however:

Mr McGrath stated to the [IRAO] prisoners that their arrest was not authorised by the Government, but was solely military action. Also that even so they should not have been arrested as the troops had only Warrants to arrest three of them. It was pointed out to Mr McGrath that our instructions were to arrest the whole party and that in any event a warrant was not necessary in the case of officers found committing conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline.

As if this debate on legalities was not enough of a pain in the posterior for the arrest party:

Mr McGrath was very disagreeable to the Officer i/c. Troops and would have been detained himself were it not for the fact of his position in Government and also that he was under the influence of drink [emphasis mine].[15]

Richard Mulcahy

This last bit was left out when Kevin O’Higgins, as Minister of Home Affairs, read out the report to the Dáil, seemingly with the permission of Richard Mulcahy. The Minister of Defence, explained O’Higgins, had drawn a line with his pencil through the segment in question when asked by O’Higgins if everything written was to be heard. McGrath pounced on this omission in order to challenge the reliability of what the Dáil attendees had just heard: “If the whole of the report is as true as the statement that was not read, very little reliance can be placed on it.”

McGrath was clearly taking it all very personally. First his home been searched in the hunt for Tobin and Dalton – a completely unnecessary act, when “a ring on the telephone would have got the same information from me” – and then he had been forced to play peacemaker at Devlin’s, to the point of getting “between some of the prisoners and one of the officers who took their surrender” lest a trigger-happy trooper caused disaster: “I knew what the firing of one shot would mean.”

Free State soldiers

Between the raid on his house and the innuendos of the report, it was all nothing more than a “miserable, dirty attempt to try to mix up matters to place me in the false position of being one of those responsible for bringing about this most unfortunate position.”[16]

Simmering Slights

W.T. Cosgrave

In truth, McGrath had been performing enough of a role in that for quite some time. Exactly what his goals were is unclear, only that he was happy to help the IRAO in achieving their own agenda by acting as a sort of spokesman or go-between. At a meeting on the 4th July 1923, nine months before the raid on Devlin’s, McGrath outlined to President W.T. Cosgrave the IRAO’s complaints while throwing in his own, according to the minutes:

He, personally, feels that he has been slighted in a number of matters – says that he has the right to make an exposure of the whole business – that he is not going forward for the DAIL [sic] again – that he may come back to public life again in four or five years, but that he requires to mature.

These ‘matters’ were not specified. Judging by his stated ambivalence over standing again for election, McGrath felt that he was at a crossroads in his life. Despite his advocacy on the IRAO’s behalf, McGrath was not always able to articulate its points: “McGrath’s own complaint with regard to Organisation [IRB] matters – his ignorance of the others’ position on the matter – makes inability to say where the ostracisation [of the mutineers] came in.”[17]

During another session with Cosgrave – this time attended by Dalton and Tobin – McGrath seemed to think that the whole matter would blow over. “Oh, they’ll be alright,” he told Cosgrave afterwards. “They have got off some steam.”[18]

The fundamental reason behind the IRAO, McGrath told the President and Mulcahy on the 26th January 1924, was little more than a fear of unemployment: “McGrath particularly mention the cause of men who were at a loose end and who were anxious to remain on in the Army and get definite work.” Overall, his stance was moderate enough: demobilisation was not in itself the problem, just that it was happening when ex-British Army soldiers undeservedly remained in the Free State military, and that while the presence of the IRB was not a particularly good thing, McGrath agreed with Cosgrave that the Army should remain under civilian control, even in the event of a de Valera government (though the odds of that must have seemed slim in 1924).[19]

Irish Free State soldiers on parade

Regardless, the IRAO was a problem that could never quite go away. McGrath proved willing to stick by its cause, even delivering to Cosgrave, on the 6th March 1924, an ultimatum from Tobin, calling for the suspension of demobilisation and the removal of Mulcahy and the rest of the Army Council. Even after this heavy-handed demand and the debacle at Devlin’s, McGrath never abandoned or turned against the mutineers, instead laying the blame on the Government, a point punctuated by his resignation as Minister for Industry and Commerce.[20]

Lingering Questions

Whatever else may be said about him, McGrath was no fair-weather friend. Nor was he a shrinking-violet, being, according to historian Maryann Gialanella Valiulis, “a visible and active actor in the drama of mutiny.” But even with such a high profile, ambiguities abounded: “It is not certain…whether he approved of the ultimatum…or indeed whether he led or simply followed Tobin and Dalton.” As for the possible whys, Valiulis offers two: “McGrath seems to have been motivated both by a desire to redress the alleged grievances of the mutineers and by his own personal ambition.”[21]

Colleagues were divided on which of the two explanations was the likeliest. “His recent action in risking his future career and sacrificing his seat in the cabinet in order to prevent the trouble in the army from growing was worthy of all praise,” wrote Seamus Hughes, General Secretary of Cumann na nGaedheal and an old friend from their Labour movement days (McGrath had leapt to Hughes’ defence, fists flying, when, in July 1919, a trade union gathering at the Mansion House turned rowdy).[22]

Desmond FitzGerald, as External Affairs Minister, took a less rosy view, seeing McGrath’s actions as part of a scheme to drive out one faction in the Government – Mulcahy and the Army Council – in order to replace it with one of his own:

Mcgrath [sic] and certain members of his party – of the non teetotal variety [a reference to the allegation of McGrath’s intoxication on the night of the Devlin’s raid?] – had apparently decided that Mulcahy and the others were not alone to go, but to make way for another gang.

While the plan half-worked in that the Army Council was forced to resign: “They are now suffering from the shock of finding that Tobin is not to be Chief of Staff!” When McGrath and his allies tried playing for time by saying “with regard to government policy that they would ‘wait and see how it succeeded before they said whether they approved or not’,” Kevin O’Higgins cut them off by “telling them it was government policy and they could take it or leave it.”[23]

Kevin O’Higgins

O’Higgins was clearly not in an accommodating mood; understandably so, since, if an Army report is to be believed, a lot worse than political manoeuvrings had come close to happening:

Reports from a source the reliability of which cannot be vouched for, contain statements to the effect that the gunmen of the [IRAO] have made up their minds that they will be avenged in the orthodox way that is by letting a certain amount of blood in the near future.

A number of Government figures were slated to be assassinated accordingly, O’Higgins among them. But the report, based on covert observations made on IRAO gatherings in Devlin’s prior to the raid, hedged on whether murder was to be their definite strategy: “This was their policy sometime ago, but with the exception of one report there is nothing to indicate that they have returned to their former outlook on this matter.”

One thing for sure, however, was the central role the Minister for Industry and Commerce was to play in the putsch:                                    

The [IRAO] bunch are quite convinced also that it is only a matter of time until the President [Cosgrave] will resign, and McGrath has so convinced them of the amount of support he is receiving from various members of the Government Party in the Dail that this crowd are beginning to see visions of him as President in the near future.

Whether McGrath was aware of this ‘certain amount of blood’ due to be shed is not stated by the report. But one thing that is emphasised is the encouragement he was giving the disgruntled officers:

Joe McGrath seems to have again consolidated his position with those people. He has promised them that he has been receiving promises of support from at least 30 T.D.s who are members of the Cumann-nGaedheal or Government Party.

With those he is satisfied that he holds the balance of power and he has now told the [IRAO] crowd that as the Government cannot carry on without the support of the men who are supporting his new party that his policy will be to form a coalition with the Government, his party getting as their portion of the bargain his demands as to the reinstatement of [IRAO] men etc in the Army.

All these were lofty claims on McGrath’s part and high expectations by the mutineers. Maybe it was the fervid atmosphere in post-Civil War Ireland where much had been already done and little seemed impossible – or just the pints at Devlin’s talking when the patrons told the source behind the report: “They say that they expect McGrath to win and when he wins, woe to their enemies.”[24]

For once, it was McGrath who came up short. His resignation as Minister would not be the end of his political career, and politics alone was not his life as his later success in business showed. But the top prize of ultimate power had eluded him, forever as it turned out – which was perhaps the best for everyone.


[1] Corless, Damian. The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Racket in the World: Irish Hospitals Sweepstakes (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 2010), pp. 24-9

[2]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 20th June 2022) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, pp. 304-7

[3] Ibid, pp. 304-5

[4] Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003), pp. 232-4

[5] Dáil Éireann. Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922]), p. 203

[6] Ibid, p. 218

[7] Regan, John M. The Irish Counter-Revolution: 1921-1936 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2001), p. 92

[8] Irish Times, 23/02/1927

[9] Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1978), p. 256

[10] MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 156

[11] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 195 ; Dorney, John. The Civil War in Dublin: The Fight for the Irish Capital, 1922-1924 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Square, 2017), pp. 216, 224

[12] McCarthy, Michael. High Tension: Life on the Shannon Scheme (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2004), p. 16

[13] Irish Times, 20/03/1924

[14] Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Almost A Rebellion: The Irish Army Mutiny of 1924 (Cork: Tower Books, 1985), pp. 71-3

[15] University College Dublin (UCD) Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/196, p. 131

[16] Irish Times, 20/03/1924

[17] UCD, Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/195, p. 15

[18] Ibid, p. 26

[19] Ibid, pp. 96-7

[20] Ibid, P7/B/196, pp. 8-12

[21] Valiulis, Almost A Rebellion, pp. 116-7

[22] Morrissey, pp. 181, 125-6

[23] Regan, p. 188                                                            

[24] Mulcahy Papers, P7/B/196, pp. 355-6



Irish Times


Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin and Cork: The Mercier Press, 1978)

Corless, Damian. The Greatest Bleeding Hearts Rackets in the World: Irish Hospital Sweepstakes (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd, 2010)

Dáil Éireann: Official Report (Dublin: Published by the Stationery Office, [1922?])

Dorney, John. The Civil War in Dublin: The Fight for the Irish Capital, 1922-1924 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Square, 2017)

Fitzpatrick, David. Harry Boland’s Irish Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 2003)

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

McCarthy, Michael. High Tension: Life on the Shannon Scheme (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2004)

Regan, John M. The Irish Counter-Revolution: 1921-1936 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2001)

Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Almost a Rebellion: The Irish Army Mutiny of 1924 (Cork: Tower Books, 1985)

Bureau of Military History Statement

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Online Resource

CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

A Contention of Officialdoms: The Irish War of Independence in Co. Meath, 1920

In the Line of Duty

Death in Ireland in 1920 was never entirely far away, as shown on the 21st July when a group of men driving through the town of Oldcastle, Co. Meath, were accosted by British soldiers. When the call to stop was ignored, shots were fired at the motorcar which kept going until it was out of sight and range. Reinforced by personnel of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the military subsequently combed the locality and found the vehicle, abandoned in a roadside field, its windows smashed and sea-green body perforated with bullets, including a large hole in the door beside the driver’s seat.

Oldcastle, Co. Meath

Even more ominously, blood was splattered inside. Pressing onwards, the search party came across a cabin, some four hundred yards from the derelict car, inside of which the body of a young man had been left. Cause of death was not hard to discern, what with the gaping wound over the left eye, opposite the jagged exit-hole behind the left ear, from which brain matter could be seen.

The victim was identified as 25-year-old Seamus Cogan, a resident of Ballinlough parish and an officer in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). As its Volunteers were embroiled in an insurgency against British rule in Ireland, Cogan’s demise was not unexpected, however sudden and shocking, another act of war in a country that had seen plenty already and with more to come.

What was unusual, perhaps, was the circumstances of Cogan’s last ride: killed while transporting a suspect detained for cattle-theft, the sort of law-and-order duties previously left to the British authorities. A session of Meath County Council caught something of this topsy-turvy situation when one attendee, after seconding the Chairman’s expression of sympathy for Cogan and his family:

…said it was a terrible state of affairs that the forces of the English Crown should shoot a man down when engaged in the work of detecting criminals and protecting property – work which these people were supposed to be engaged in, but in which they had signally failed.

Another participant, Seamus Finn, agreed with this sentiment, adding that the death, done as it was in the service of Ireland, was one Cogan would have preferred. A resolution was made for the tricoloured flag over the County Buildings, as was the norm these days, to be flown at half-mast in mourning. Though one dissenting voice declined on the grounds of this being too overly political act for his taste, the measure was acceded.

Other local government boards in Meath were of like mind, such as Dunshaughlin District Council in passing a resolution of its own, praising “the late Seamus Cogan, who was killed while performing his duties as a Peace Officer of the Republican Government.”[1]

Memorial to IRA dead, including Seamus Cogan, in Oldcastle, Co. Meath

Switching Gears

But there was more to Cogan and his duties than peacekeeping. As O/C of the 5th (Oldcastle) Battalion – one of the six making up the Meath IRA Brigade – Cogan had presided over meetings to debate the latest step towards Irish freedom. Meath was in something of a transition between the old order and the new: the RIC had withdrawn from the smaller and more isolated of its outposts in order to concentrate in the larger barracks. While strategically sound, this did surrender much of the county to the IRA, which sealed its conquest by razing the abandoned buildings.

The remains of a burnt RIC barracks

Crossakiel RIC Barracks remained occupied and intact, however, and because this lay within the sphere of the 5th Battalion, responsibility fell to Cogan and his officers. Since the enemy base had been reinforced with barbed-wire and barricades and its police garrison doubled, Crossakiel would not be an easy challenge and it was agreed to keep it under close surveillance, its comings and goings scrutinised and studied for any chink in the armour.

Special training for the eventual assault was also considered, while operation plans were submitted to the Brigade command. Cogan was helped in this by Seamus Finn, the Meath IRA Adjutant who would later pay tribute to him in the County Council chambers. As a hands-on officer:

I remained in the area for a couple of weeks and assisted in training the various companies and discussing the plans. It was obvious that the party to attack would need to be specially selected and be drawn from different companies, and during these weeks Cogan and I were spotting likely men to form this party or column…We had not formulated any definite plan when I had to leave the area but the foundation had been laid and it should not have taken us very long to complete the details.

Seamus Finn

While the spirit of the Volunteers was abundant, their tools were not, for it was decided by the Brigade leadership to postpone the idea on the grounds of insufficient munitions, at least until its next meeting, set for July 1920. “Just then we were forced to give all our attention to another phased activity,” Finn later wrote, this being the Local Government Elections in Meath and elsewhere throughout the country.[2]

The attention paid off…unless it was never needed to begin with, given the headlines of the Meath Chronicle:





The various Rural Councils and Boards of Guardians for Navan, Kells, Trim, Slane, Dunshaughlin and elsewhere were now almost entirely in the hands of Sinn Féin members or, as the newspaper put it, “men pledged to the National cause.” Only in Trim was there anything like a competition, that between Seamus Finn and the Labour candidate, Mr Mathews. After both gained an equal number of votes, and a brief conversation between the two men, Mathews agreed to stand down; though, since he was supportive of Sinn Féin as well, it would have been a win either way.[4]

Pledging to the National Cause

Heading the Meath County Council was its newly-elected Chairman, Patrick Clinch, who set the tone at its annual meeting, on the 19th June 1920, by informing his peers in his inaugural speech that:

They were living in very critical times, and no doubt they would have to play an important part in this, the last struggle for independence…They might have to make many sacrifices. Sacrifices had to be made before, and might have to be made again, but the object was a worthy one, and he did not think they need fear the future, as the prospect was a bright one. The country was never better and the people never more true, never more ready to make sacrifice and work for the cause of freedom.

Applause punctuated the speech, showing that the Chairman and the rest of the room were fully in accord. When Clinch followed up with a motion proposing that Meath County Council acknowledge the authority of Dáil Éireann as the sole legitimate one in Ireland, it was passed unanimously.[5]

Michael Collins

Not that the transition of Sinn Féin from outsiders to winners had been entirely seamless. Back in August 1919, a report was sent to Michael Collins by Seán Boylan, O/C of the Meath IRA Brigade. It complained of the “slackness in this Constituency” due to the “friction between the Volunteers and Sinn Fein” and the contempt the former displayed for the latter, seeing it merely as “constitutionalism” rather than a proper revolutionary force. A “good talking over” by Collins and his peers in the IRA GHQ for certain of their “rather juvenile and bumptious” officers was advised, and evidently whatever had been said stuck.[6]

“It is more important to get our people to refuse to recognise British local government than to attack their armed forces,” Collins later told Boylan. Though he would be hailed as ‘the man who won the war’, Collins was realistic enough to recognise the limitations of too narrow a focus.  If the aim of the revolution was Irish self-rule, then, at a local level, it had already succeeded in Meath; it was just a matter of making it stick.[7]

On the Case

Doing so involved taking over the British state in role as well as in name. When Fobertyn House, near Longwood, was robbed and vandalised, on the 23rd May 1920, its owner, Captain de Stackpole, went straight to the Irish Volunteers in Trim with a list of his pilfered goods. The response came three days later:

A motor car containing Volunteer officers, and a member of men on bicycles, arrived at Longwood and approached four men, whom they conveyed to an unknown location.

Two more arrests were made the next day, after which stolen silverware was retrieved from its hiding place in a bog when one of the detainees confessed. Further goods were recovered when the Volunteers searched the home of another prisoner; the RIC, in contrast, had looked there before but found nothing. It was a propaganda coup for the Volunteers, especially when they refused reward money from a grateful Captain de Stackpole.[8]

“We are acting on behalf of the Irish Government and are Volunteers,” Boylan told Stackpole, according to the former’s recollections. “You ought to join us.”

Captain de Stackpole

When Stackpole expressed reservations, particularly about the use of political violence, Boylan pressed on: “You lost two brothers in the [First World] War; what benefit has it brought to Ireland?”

“My brothers fought for Ireland,” Stackpole replied.

“They fought for England.”

“I won’t discuss it further with you.”[9]

Clearly, then, there was still some way to go in fully winning hearts and minds. But progress had been made and not just with Stackpole, for word was rapidly getting around, according to the Meath Chronicle:

The successful tactics of the Volunteers in tracking down the burglaries is being widely spoken of throughout Meath and in Longwood district, where such robberies have become quite common of late, it is hoped that the moral victory of the Volunteers will obviate such occurrences in future.

While the culprit who confessed had been released, “the whereabouts of the other prisoners still remains a mystery.”[10]

In this, the Meath IRA had enlisted the services of Joe Lawless, an officer in the neighbouring Fingal Brigade and the owner of a garage off Lower Dorset Street, Dublin. Boylan first called in at the garage in November 1919 to ask for the use of the motorcars in the attack on Ballivor RIC Barracks; a request Lawless was happy to fulfil with the loan of two vehicles as well as his driving skills. He chauffeured the Meath Volunteers in one of the cars to Ballivor, where the police garrison was surprised and its arsenal ransacked. The captured guns and ammunition were loaded into the car and taken to Trim, where they were deposited, allowing Lawless to make his way back to Dublin.[11]

Ballivor RIC Barracks, Co. Meath (Freeman’s Journal, 4th November 1919)

Lawless was again happy to help when Boylan needed his aid in rounding up the criminal gang behind the Fobertyn robbery. For this second mission to Meath, Lawless chose the Reo truck he had recently purchased at Portobello Barracks. Designed for haulage work, the Reo could pass for an army lorry, Lawless thought, a useful guise in a country increasingly under military occupation.

Making Arrests

It was a fact evident even in quiet Longwood, as Lawless drove in with Boylan and the rest of the Volunteers assigned to the task:

I remember that the first thing that registered itself in my mind as I entered the town was the fact that there were two RIC men armed with revolvers in their belts walking towards us down the street with all the assurance of possession in their gait.  A hurried comment on this brought the further enlightenment from Boylan that the building which faced us at the far end of the street was the RIC barracks.

Despite these displays of dominance, the two policemen hurriedly retreated to their barracks – much to Lawless’ amusement – as the Reo stopped just off the main street, allowing its passengers to dash out, towards the pub where local Volunteers were waiting to identify the robbery perpetrators inside. The guilty men were thrown in the back of the truck, which Lawless then drove through the main street. This took them past the barracks, where the door and steel window-shutters were already closing, its occupants obviously fearing that their stronghold was the next to be attacked.

Longwood, Co. Meath

Lawless braced himself for a bullet to come through his windshield, but nothing did and then the Roe turned the corner, out of sight and range of the barracks. The Volunteers took the time to stop at the houses of the remaining suspects, who were likewise bundled on board. Lawless drove out of Longwood to Trim, dropping off Boylan and some of the Meath men, and continued on to Balheary, Fingal, as per Boylan’s instructions, where the prisoners would be held in an abandoned farmhouse by the Fingal IRA.[12]

Joe Lawless (from National Museum of Ireland)

Lawless did not linger in the area after depositing the miscreants, apparently never troubling himself to learn of their fates. According to Boylan, upon confessing their guilt, they “were stripped and flogged, receiving two cuts of a horse whip each, and compelled to work on a farm for three weeks, after which they were allowed to return home.”[13]

Which was a far brisker, rougher sort of justice than the Crown courts would have offered. But then, justice other than what the IRA provided was in short supply. Indeed, Boylan believed the RIC were in on the crime, or at least willing to leave it unsolved in the hope of the blame falling on the IRA. One of the thieves, by the name of Malone, admitted to Boylan that an RIC sergeant in Longwood had even advised him on the best way of disposing the stolen goods from Fobertyn House. Boylan had this confession written up and signed by Malone, with a copy sent to Collins and another for Captain de Stackpole, much to the latter’s amazement.[14]

Constables of the RIC

Of course, Malone may simply have been telling his interrogator what he wanted to hear. But it is certainly true that, save for some ineffectual searches, the RIC had been an irrelevance throughout this whole episode.

Murder Most Foul

The case of Fobertyn House had been a relatively simple, or at least bloodless, affair. Not so much was another, which began on the 10th May 1920, when a 24-year-old Mark Clinton was shot at Rosemount while on the road with two horses. Coming upon the scene, his father took the wounded Mark to a nearby cottage where he died a few hours later, having bled out from two bullet-wounds: one on the right side of his chest and the other to the left of his back, the result of a single bullet tearing through the body, so ruled the coroner at the inquiry.

In his last, lingering moments, Mark had divulged to his father at his bedside that the assailants had numbered five; beyond that, he refused to give more, including their names, saying he forgave them. The only clue he offered was when asked if it had been British soldiers who were responsible: “No, I wish it was. It was our own neighbours.”[15]

Despite this vague response, it was not long before a guilty name was circulated – and a response made:

The arrest of Gordon was quietly and expeditiously carried out. He was tapped on the shoulder, and told he was wanted, and then taken out to a motor car in which his captors had arrived, and, bound and blindfolded, he was taken away to an unknown destination, likely to be “somewhere in Ireland.”

So reported the Meath Chronicle on the 26th July, two months after Clinton’s death. Although nothing had been stated publicly, “the charge is assumed to be in connection with the murder of Mark Clinton… the facts of which are well within the public memory.” Gordon – no surname provided – had been in a pub in Navan when “some men, presumably Republican police” – as in, Volunteers – confronted him; the lack of resistance offered might have been born of confidence from his last brush with the law: he had just been acquitted in the Navan Crimes Court of illegal possession of a revolver found under the thatch of an outhouse adjacent to his residence.

Old Navan Courthouse

But that had been by the British system. As Gordon had just found out, there was a new sheriff in town. ACQUITED BY THE MAGISTRATES – APPREHENDED BY VOLUNTEERS as the Meath Chronicle put it succinctly.[16]

Boylan had that newspaper to thank, specifically Seán Hayes, one of its reporting staff, who told him of Gordon’s acquittal while the Meath O/C was in Navan, waiting for confirmation of the accused’s identity. A number of other suspects in Clinton’s death had already been rounded up and detained, first in a house near Kells and then in the basement of an old rectory at Salestown, Dunboyne, where the barred windows made it ideal as an improvised prison.

Let Justice Be Done

The reasons behind the murder were, according to Boylan, money and land:

Gordon received the sum of £2 for the shooting from a William Rogers, an ex-South African policeman, who had organised a band of terrorists to seize the land. The objective of the gang was to seize this land and divide it among their adherents.[17]

Boylan had called on Joe Lawless again for use of one of his garage vehicles – a truck or lorry, this time – and motoring skills in the transferal of the prisoners and their guards. Although not involved in the case otherwise, Lawless was able to provide a little more information on the motives at play:

The daily newspapers at the time characterized the murder of Clinton as a purely agrarian crime and it had, in fact, some significance, because Clinton, who farmed in the district, had taken over a farm from the Irish Land Commission which had claimed for division amongst certain local British ex-servicemen…the newspaper report of the crime shocked a public that had begun to get accustomed to daily reports of violent death in one form or another.[18]

As soon as Boylan heard that the man currently in court on the weapons charges was indeed Gordon, the last member of the gang sought after, he issued orders for the local Volunteers to patrol the roads leading in and out of town and to search the pubs until they found their man. The only gun available was a rusty .32 revolver but that was enough to secure Gordon’s cooperation, and he was driven – the ability to procure cars being a major element of the Meath Brigade’s insurgency – to join the rest of the prisoners in Salestown.

Unlike some other IRA O/Cs, Boylan enjoyed a good working relationship with the GHQ in Dublin. After journeying to the capital to consult with Michael Collins, he was able to secure the services of three officers in the Dublin Brigade – Dr Ted Kelly, John Joyce and Seán Dowling – to act as judges in the trial of the accused. The rest of the court was done mostly by Meath IRA officers: Seamus O’Higgins, Captain of the Trim Company, as Prosecution Counsel; Seamus Cogan, O/C of the 5th Battalion in Meath, for the Defending Counsel; and the Clerk of Court being Peadar O’Brien, Vice O/C of the 4th Battalion, Dublin.

Irish Volunteers/IRA members

Boylan stressed in his later account, written in 1957, that the Dubliners were brought in to provide impartiality, given the strong feelings Clinton’s murder had aroused in Meath. How fair the trial really was is, of course, impossible to determine; besides, no member of the impromptu court had legal training and so could only do their best to play the roles assigned to them. Conveniently, the prisoners made the job easier by spilling the beans; according to Boylan, Gordon “confessed to the crime and admitted attempted murder in two other cases and the burning of two homes.”[19]

Seamus Finn, who had helped transport the prisoners, was to tell a similar version:

All the evidence was heard and they were given every facility to prove their innocence but all of them, with one exception, a man who was the real ringleader, admitted their guilt and implicated the killer as the one who fired the shot. The leader eventually admitted his part in the affair too and the court passed sentence on them.[20]

Countess Markievicz

The penalty passed on Gordon was the capital one. Given the gravity of the situation, the matter was forwarded to Dublin for final approval. The underground Cabinet seemed to find the responsibility of life and death slightly daunting – Countess Markievicz, for one, argued for clemency – but since guilt had already been determined, and by the same type of courts the revolution was trying to promote, the conclusion was that the fledgling Irish state should live up to the authority it claimed and let justice be done.

“It was duly carried out, I understand,” Ernest Blythe later wrote.[21]

Carrying It Out

Boylan supervised Gordon’s execution. When the clergyman brought in for the condemned’s final moments made a plea for the sentence being commuted to exile from Ireland, Boylan retorted that Gordon would simply be back on the next ship home and with the names of his captors to give to the British authorities. Deportation was good enough for the rest of the gang, for periods varying from three to fifteen years, to be carried out at once by the Volunteers who escorted the miscreants in batches of three or four to Dublin before placing them on the next boat for Liverpool.[22]

Irish Volunteers/IRA members

Case closed. Once again, the contrast could not be clearer between the inertia of the Crown courts and the speed of the Republican system, especially considering how it entailed the mobilisation of a large number of men in the arrest, transportation and holding of another sizeable body. What is also extraordinary was, if not quite public, then how open the shadow justice system had been, enough for the Meath Chronicle to inform its readers how:

A courtmartial, constituted by six or seven officers, was held on Saturday [11th June 1920], and the prisoners were examined. Certain statements were made by some of the prisoners. The court having concluded, the prisoners were again conducted to their place of detention.[23]

Nowhere was there any suggestion of the British authorities doing anything to stop or deter this. They were, for many intents and purposes, irrelevant.

Not that the insurgency had everything its own way, as the death of Seamus Cogan showed – the old order still had teeth with which to bite. “Cogan was a great loss to the brigade,” wrote Boylan. “He was one of our best officers and I felt his loss keenly.”[24]

Memorial to IRA dead, Oldcastle, Co. Meath

Nonetheless, Cogan was but one man, and a war remained to be fought. The RIC barracks at Crossakiel, that he and the rest of the 5th Battalion had been planning to attack, fell less than a month after his death, in August 1920, albeit less dramatically than Cogan and his officers had envisioned. The garrison pulled out, and the Volunteers wasted no time: a mere few hours after the last of the policemen departed, about fifteen and twenty men appeared and burnt the deserted building to the ground.

The courthouse at the end of the barracks was also razed; the post office at the other end was not, however, in a sign that this was not wanton destruction but a calculated move. The raiders had carried revolvers during the process, with sentries posted on the roads leading into the village – precautions which, as it turned out, were unnecessary. British troops did not arrive on the scene until two days later, far, far, too late.[25]

See also:

Capture the Castle: The War Against the Royal Irish Constabulary in Co. Meath, 1919-20

The Enemy/Friend of my Friend/Enemy is my ????: The Intelligence War in Co. Meath, 1920-1


[1] Meath Chronicle, 31/07/1920

[2] Finn, Seamus (BMH / WS 1060, Part III), pp. 2-5

[3] Meath Chronicle, 12/06/1920

[4] Ibid, 19/06/1920

[5] Ibid, 26/06/1920

[6] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘I.R.A. Meath Brigade, 1919. I.R.A. Typed and handwritten communications from Adjutant General [Michael Collins] to Seán Boylan, Commandant, Meath Brigade’, IE-MA-CP-02-13, p. 3

[7] Boylan, Seán (BMH / WS 1715), p. 37

[8] Meath Chronicle, 29/05/1920

[9] Boylan, p. 19

[10] Meath Chronicle, 29/05/1920

[11] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 314-6

[12] Ibid, pp. 320-4

[13] Boylan, p. 20

[14] Ibid, p. 18

[15] Meath Chronicle, 15/05/1920

[16] Ibid, 26/07/1920

[17] Boylan, pp. 20-1

[18] Lawless, pp. 324-5

[19] Boylan, pp. 22-3

[20] Finn, pp. 16-7

[21] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 123

[22] Boylan, pp. 24-5

[23] Meath Chronicle, 12/06/1920

[24] Boylan, p. 26

[25] Meath Chronicle, 14/08/1920



Meath Chronicle

Bureau of Military History Statements

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

Boylan, Seán, WS 1715

Finn, Seamus, WS 1060

Lawless, Joseph, WS 1043

Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks

Michael Collins Papers

Toe to Toe: The South Armagh By-Election, February 1918

‘A Remarkable Career’

Charles O'NeillA piece of history, as well as a man, passed away on the 14th January 1918 with the death of Dr Charles O’Neill in Coatbridge, Scotland. He had been one of the few remaining participants at the meeting in the home of Isaac Butt in 1873, when the movement for Home Rule was first launched: tantalising, enraging and inspiring Ireland with equal passion ever since.

It was a cause Dr O’Neill had thrown himself into unreservedly as the Member of Parliament (MP) for South Armagh, a seat won in 1909 and retained in both the general elections of 1910, thus earning him the merit of being elected thrice in the space of twelve months. Even so, he did not go so as far as to move there, instead dividing his time between his Scottish residence and his work at Westminster, the battlefield where the struggle for Home Rule was waged, particularly during the bare-knuckle years of 1912 to 1914. While never more than an adequate orator – his speaking style was politely described as “quiet, effective” – the quantity of his attendance was perhaps more important than its quality.

“No member of the Irish Party was more assiduous in his attendance at Westminster,” wrote the Freeman’s Journal in its obituary:

It was Dr O’Neill’s unvarying practice to leave London at midnight on Friday after the close of the week’s sitting of the House of Commons and leave Coatbridge again later on Sunday night in order to be in his place when the House resumed on Monday afternoon.[1]

Politics had been an interest of his since youth, but few could have expected much from the poor immigrant from Co. Antrim when he stepped off the boat on the Clyde. Even the Armagh Guardian, a newspaper with a Unionist outlook which would not have made it inherently sympathetic to a Nationalist politician, paid tribute to him as “a self-made man with a remarkable career.”

O’Neill had a humble start as a rural postman in Scotland, earning a little extra on the side by cobbling in his spare time and selling tea during his postal rounds. From there, he started a lodging-house in Coatbridge, before adding a pub and next a pawnbrokers to his property portfolio.

He then began to take an interest in public life, and once at a meeting someone sneered at his lack of education. He felt this keenly, and he became less in evidence in local affairs, when, having blossomed forth into a fully qualified doctor, he returned to public life.[2]

This included his duties for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) as well as civic affairs at home, with O’Neill – now Dr O’Neill – holding positions of note in the Parish Council, the School Board and the Town Council of Coatbridge, along with some time as a magistrate. Two weeks before his death from cancer, he had addressed the Glasgow Teachers’ branch of the United Irish League on the subject of the new Scottish Education Bill in what was to be his swansong public appearance. Whether for Ireland or Scotland, Dr O’Neill had busied himself to the last.

“The deceased was of a kindly and generous disposition,” finished the Freeman’s Journal, “and will be greatly missed…by his colleagues in the Irish Party.”[3]

On the Ropes

As well he might, for the MP’s death had left his seat open to a by-election at a time when the IPP had ample cause to dread such occurrences, having failed at all four in the previous year. For a challenger had entered the political ring, in the form of a revitalised Sinn Féin party, and was wasting no time in pummelling the once undisputed champion of Irish Nationalism with one electoral defeat after another.

Cartoon upon the IPP defeat in North Roscommon, from the ‘Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

The first had been North Roscommon in February 1917, followed by South Longford in May, and then, in quick succession, East Clare in July and Kilkenny City in August. Longford was especially brutal, for the previous Roscommon loss could have been written off as a fluke, “a result to be attributed rather to emotion than to conviction,” according to P.S. O’Hegarty, in his chronicle of Sinn Féin’s rise.

Come South Longford and the IPP:

…faced it in full confidence and with a machine in full working order. That was one of the vital elections in Irish history. If the Parliamentarians had won it, they might have preserved their organisation and their machine and kept Sinn Féin out of its heritage for some time yet; yet they lost it by thirty-seven votes, and got their death-blow.[4]

Stephen Gwynn

Even Stephen Gwynn, the MP for Galway City, agreed. The Longford result, as he saw it, “was a notice of dismissal to the Parliamentary Party.” Some others among the Irish Party went so far as to privately propose that their MPs should resign en masse and make way for the ascending new power. Though nothing came of that suggestion, the situation improved not one bit for the IPP over the course of the year, lurching from bad to worse, with four seats lost to Sinn Féin by the time 1917 drew to a close. And now, with the South Armagh seat open and vulnerable, Sinn Féin was readying to claim its first foothold in Ulster.[5]

“Sinn Féin must win this seat,” exhorted the Nationality, edited by none other than Arthur Griffith. In order to achieve this, the newspaper made an appeal for funds towards what it grandly called “one of the most critical elections in National History” which “must be fought with the Nation’s whole strength.” That Armagh stood to be lost in the event of Partition gave the challenge a particular edge. It was time, wrote one reader in a letter to the Nationality, “to help Ulster to take its stand with Leinster, Connaught, and Munster in the fight for Irish Freedom, and to repudiate the corrupt ‘bosses’ who have tried desperately to sell the country and to place Ulster under the heel of an intolerant ascendancy clique.”[6]

A cartoon mocking the IPP’s defeat in North Roscommon, from Roscommon Herald’, 10th February 1917

Fighting words, indeed. “We would say the Sinn Feiners are certainly daring in their tactics, but everyone knows that fact already,” noted the Armagh Guardian dryly.[7]

Opening Volleys

Whatever its woes and the daring of its opponents, the IPP appeared determined to fight hard for South Armagh. The weather on the 21st January 1918, when the election campaign officially began, was wretched, with continuous downpours, but canvassers and speakers from both parties made the best of the dismissal day, putting on a series of rallies throughout the constituency.

Patrick McCartan

The Sinn Féin contender was a Dr Patrick McCartan but he was not currently present in Armagh, nor would he be if the authorities across the Atlantic had anything to do with it, detained as he was in a New York prison. That had not deterred his name from being one of the two put forward at the Sinn Féin conference in Whitecross, Co. Armagh, on the 20th January. The second possibility, Dr McKee from Banbridge, quickly withdrew, leaving McCartan to campaign in spirit, if not in presence. After all, imprisonment had not stopped Joe McGuinness from being elected to his South Longford seat and, of course, Dr O’Neill had represented South Armagh all that time from his Scottish abode. An absentee MP would be nothing new for the constituency.

As for the Irish Party, it had not yet settled on its choice, though it was generally accepted that Patrick Donnelly, a solicitor from Newry, would be it. Donnelly certainly gave every impression of that as he took the lead in the IPP campaign. After paying tribute to the late Dr O’Neill, Donnelly launched into a cutting criticism of the opposition.

Fj, pd 1 feb
Patrick Donnelly, from the Freeman’s Journal, 1st Feb. 1918

For the first time, he said, the electorate of Ulster were to have Sinn Féiners, the disciples of disruption and dissension, in their midst. To be sure, they promised many things. Sinn Féin wanted an Irish Republic but was not so definite on how this lofty goal could be achieved. Ireland was to have an army and a navy, supposedly, but were the long-suffering tenant farmers of the county to pay for these martial luxuries?

The Irish taxpayer had been charged enough as it was. With the British Exchequer planning yet more financial burdens, how were these to be resisted if Sinn Féin refused to enter Parliament in accordance with its abstentionism stance? The likes of Éamon de Valera could tout their willingness to wait as long as fifty years for an Irish Republic but what was to happen to Ireland until then?

No, there was nothing sane or sensible in such policies, Donnelly declared:

And he doubted if [Sinn Féin] would have secured any support whatever but for the sympathy which was evoked following upon the executions in Dublin [after the 1916 Rising].

Donnelly expressed his hope that the contest would be a clean one. But if the Sinn Féiners intended to use force and intimidation to get their way, as he heard they had done in the by-elections of the previous year, then they would most assuredly be given a taste of their own methods, he warned, to the cries of “hear, hear” from his audience.[8]

Cold War

Donnelly was not speaking idly. With units of Irish Volunteers coming into Armagh from all over the country in support of Sinn Féin, violence indeed hung in the air. But Sinn Féin’s adherents would have disagreed with his assertion that the threat lay with them, for the IPP and its partisans proved just as willing to turn a political fight into a physical one.

“When the campaigning got under way it soon became apparent that fisticuffs were considered by some as more effective than arguments,” the captain of a Volunteer company from Louth commented dryly.[9]

Irish Volunteers squaring up

Others could attest to that. As C Company from Dublin pulled into Newry Station, its Volunteers looked outside the windows to see the large, angry crowd waiting for them. Forbidden to carry weapons other than sticks, the Dubliners were readying these for use on their first time on Northern ground when a female voice called out: “Up de Valera, the man they daren’t shoot.”

The scene was to stay with the company captain, Seamus Kavanagh, in the years to come:

It is hard to describe the effect that the woman’s voice and words had upon us; apart from the words and the personality referred to in them, her voice had the ring of defiance that electrified us.

Thus motivated, the Irish Volunteers formed up in fours as soon as they stepped from their carriages and advanced to meet the multitude head-on. The display was enough to overawe the throng, as the Dubliners, much to their own surprise, were able to march by without any trouble – for now.

Newtownhamilton, Co. Armagh (today)

C Company was barracked at the village of Newtownhamilton, inside an empty building – an old mill or warehouse – set aside for them. Accommodation was Spartan, with the men having to make do with sleeping on the floor. Still, the Volunteers busied themselves with their work, such as patrolling the village, changing in rotation at regular intervals, while careful to keep to one end of the streets, allowing the other to be held by members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a Catholic fraternity, long allied to the IPP and with a formidable presence in the North as the newcomers were learning.

Not that Kavanagh was overly impressed. Already an experienced soldier, who had cut his teeth at Mount Street Bridge and Boland’s Bakery during the Easter Rising, Kavanagh regarded the opposition with a disdainful eye:

Discipline was very marked between the two parties; whereas we moved under a squad or section leader, we were silent and smoked only on his permission and then only while halted and “at ease”; they, although they kept some semblance of military formation, often shouted threatening phrases at us.

Kavanagh nursed a special contempt for the Hibernians’ commander, a small, distinctly unmilitary-looking man, who was in the habit of flourishing his stick over his head while delivering either of the only two orders he knew – “Quick march” and “Halt”.

What the Hibernians lacked in polish, however, they made up for in spirit. “Not one of them will leave Newtownhamilton alive,” shouted someone from the crowd across the street to the Volunteers. Nonetheless, the war inside the village remained a cold one, each band content to posture and eyeball the other.[10]

Newtownhamilton, Co. Armagh (old postcard)

Slow Starts

Martial manoeuvres aside, the McCartan campaigners had no illusions about the odds against them. The Rising of 1916 may have electrified the country as a whole into rejecting the parliamentary methods of the IPP in favour of the more confrontational style espoused by Sinn Féin and embodied in the Irish Volunteers but South Armagh remained thus far a revolutionary backwater. This was despite the best efforts of a handful of activists in the area who extolled the new faith while “the people generally were listening and perhaps sympathetic but did not yet give much evidence of excitement,” as John McCoy remembered.

A recent convert to Republicanism, McCoy had been inspired by the heroics of Easter Week. The same could not be said for the rest of his native province as McCoy was painfully aware:

The position in the districts I know in the North in 1917 showed a marked contrast in the matter of organising and recruiting for Sinn Féin and the Irish Volunteers to all districts in the South and West.

Things were so lethargic in his locality of South Armagh that “no particular notice was taken of it by the British Authorities” – perhaps the ultimate insult from a Fenian point of view.[11]

The by-election following Dr O’Neill’s passing offered a chance to shake up this sorry situation but McCoy, despite his newfound radical sympathies, was reluctant to respond when asked to assist in the Sinn Féin campaign. He was busy with his work as a land auctioneer and, besides, “I did not think that business and politics would mix successfully as far as I was concerned.”

That Sinn Féin had made its election base outside the contested constituency, instead choosing Dundalk, Co. Louth, was a measure of its own hesitancy. While the party and its Volunteer allies were already well-established in Dundalk, for South Armagh they would have to start from scratch.

Seán O’Mahony

Which they did, spearheaded by experienced campaigners from all over Ireland who had cut their teeth in the contests of the year before. When McCoy finally agreed to lend whatever aid he could, time permitting, he was asked by one of the newcomers, Seán O’Mahony – nicknamed ‘Big Séan’ on account of his size – who to approach first. “I told him to tackle my father who was not disposed to give up his allegiance to the Irish Parliamentary Party.”

And so:

I introduced Séan to my father as one of the men who fought for the Republic in Dublin in 1916, and my father told Séan that the British must have been rotten shots to miss such a large target.

By the end of their talk, “Seán succeeded so well that he made our house his Headquarters during the election,” McCoy recalled delightedly.[12]

‘Ill-Considered and Utopian’

Cardinal Michael Logue

The personal touch had its limits, however. The main hurdle for Sinn Féin was that it was a new phenomenon while the Armagh Nationalists were, by and large, an old-fashioned lot; few areas would have seen an elderly farmer argue his case by quoting from the 6th century Prophecy of St Columcille at the Sinn Féin canvassers who had stopped by. Less medieval, but also set in his ways, was the man at the top of the spiritual pyramid as far as many in the constituency were concerned: Cardinal Michael Logue. Any doubt as to where the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland stood would have been dispelled by a pastoral letter to the churches in his Diocese of Armagh, read out the year before on the Sunday of the 25th November.

“The pursuit of a dream which no man in his sober senses can hope to see realised,” His Eminence warned:

The establishment of an Irish Republic…would be ludicrous if it were not so mischievous and fraught with such danger, when cleverly used as an incentive to fire the imagination of an ardent, generous, patriotic people.

After all, how else would this Republic be achieved except through the generosity of the European powers – a long shot at best – or “by hurling an unarmed people against an Empire which has five millions of men under arms, furnished with the most terrible engines of destruction which human ingenuity can devise”? With this considered, what else could the budding new movement in the land – discreetly unnamed in the pastoral but obvious enough in its identity – be but:

An agitation [which] has sprung up and is spreading among our people which, ill-considered and Utopian cannot fail, if preserved in, to entail present suffering, disorganisation and danger, and is sure to end in future disaster, defeat and collapse.[13]

The Cardinal had not softened his stance by the time of the by-election, two months later: when Éamon de Valera called by, Logue refused to receive him. A police report attributed Logue’s grip on his clergy as the reason the younger ones did not play an active role in the contest, the assumption being they would have done for Sinn Féin.[14]

Sinn Féin poster on a carriage

Another Vote for Easter Week?

Even if Cardinal Logue did not necessarily speak for all his congregation, one particular missionary for Sinn Féin, Darrell Figgis, was to learn of the gulf between his thinking and that of those he hoped to convert. Technically, the Charlemont Arms Hotel was outside the disputed area, the hotel being in Armagh City, which was more mid-county than south, but it was close enough to the action to be used as a base for Sinn Féiners north of the constituency in the same way Dundalk filled in for those southwards.

Charlemont Arms Hotel, Armagh

It also provided a suitable pulpit for Figgis to preach his side’s case, as one witness, Kevin O’Shiel, described, to:

A large number of farmers and countrymen, all rather elderly and appearing to be in the process of conversion of Redmond’s brand of constitutional nationalism to that of Griffith.

Seated at the head of a long table in the hotel sitting-room, Figgis fielded questions from an audience who:

…feared and distrusted the Volunteers and the fighting men, and abhorred the prospect of another rising. If they voted for Dr MacCartan [alternative spelling], a well-known Ulster figure whose name, for a generation, had been synonymous with extreme nationalism of the Fenian and physical force type…did that mean they would be voting for another Easter Week?

Darrell Figgis

Not at all, Figgis assured them. Physical force had served its purpose, which was to grab the attention of the country. The policy moving forwards was to be of the constitutional type, as envisioned by Arthur Griffith, building Ireland up into a self-sufficient nation before it took its place among the countries of the world. The Irish Volunteers remained, yes, but their purpose now was purely one of self-defence, particularly if conscription by Britain – a possibility detested and feared by all – was ever in danger of being imposed in Ireland.

In the light of the subsequent insurgency, this claim might seem a disingenuous one, but O’Shiel was to insist in his written reminiscences:

That presentment of the case for the new Sinn Féin was no deception on Figgis’ part – it was the belief held by us all, including the Volunteer chiefs themselves.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Figgis was swaying the audience to his creed – and then disaster struck for the sake of a long-dead icon. When the name of Charles Stewart Parnell was raised – “as, indeed, it inevitably is in any prolonged discussion amongst Irishmen,” as O’Shiel dryly put it – Figgis had a ready, if unwise, response in regard to the leader whose adultery had thrown Nationalist Ireland into turmoil: whatever a man does in his private life has surely no bearing on his public conduct.

As beliefs go, it was an enlightened one. In front of the devotedly Catholic old gents before Figgis – who, at 35 years of age, was from a different generation and had not, unlike them, lived through the Sturm und Drang of the Parnell era – it went down like a lead balloon. With this single answer, the preacher had lost his would-be congregation, as evidenced by the number who took their hats and then their leave, shuffling awkwardly away.[15]

A Lesser of Evils

Another demographic Sinn Féiners were unlikely to be overly familiar with were the Unionists of South Armagh, who approached the by-election with an entirely different criteria: which faction of their despised enemies could they tolerate winning – or prefer to lose the least? For, as far as the Armagh Guardian newspaper was concerned, any plague would preferably be on both their houses:

One political opponent is almost as bad as the other, for both have threatened that when they get into power they will, to use Mr John Redmond’s words, deal with Unionists with a strong hand. The only difference is that the Redmondite party say they have renounced their former demands of an Ireland separated from Great Britain, whilst the Sinn Feiners openly state they go for the same goal as Mr Redmond…formerly did – an Irish Republic by recourse to armed force if necessary.

Who, then, was the lesser of the two evils? And how would a vote for one best serve against the other? A Sinn Féin victory promised interesting consequences, for not only would it deny the IPP another parliamentary place, but the Nationalist agenda itself would be hobbled a little further in Westminster due to the Sinn Féin policy of abstentionism.

Ulster Unionist postcard


It is also being argued in Ulster that by voting for the Sinn Feiners they are helping to reduce the power of the priesthood. Some Unionists hold the view that if the Sinn Feiners win the seat the [IPP] will be more than anxious to come to terms with the Unionist party as to Ulster, to make common front against the Republicans.

“Certainly there is something in this view,” wrote the Armagh Guardian, on the 25th January 1918, with the air of a general surveying a battlefield while weighing up the most promising tactic. But counting against this strategy of Divide and Conquer were scruples: “Loyal Unionists are warned they will ally themselves with rebels if they vote for McCartan” – a hard thing to swallow for any good servant of the Crown.

ed118-southarmagh-mccartanposter2-nliStill, that Unionists had a choice at all in a previously safe seat for the IPP was a novelty. However, lest the unexpected potential to play kingmaker got to its readers’ heads, the Armagh Guardian warned against hasty judgement:

The Unionist vote…should not be used without consultation with the leaders of the party, and that their decision be followed. They will consider the situation from the Unionist standpoint and give wise counsel, knowing which will be best for the great cause at a critical time.[16]

By the time of its next edition a week later, on the 1st February, the newspaper had decided that the best Nationalist to endure is none at all: vote for neither and let the enemy sort out its own squabbles. Hence the consternation when it learned that, instead of waiting for guidance as advised, some Armagh Unionists had gone ahead and nominated a candidate of their own. That Thomas Wakefield Richardson had had a change of heart almost immediately and withdrawn from the contest scarcely helped matters, for his name was still to appear on the ballot papers, potentially confusing some into wasting their choice on a candidate who was not even in the running anymore, and with other Unionists either settling for the IPP or not voting at all.

Ulster Unionist crowd with a Union Jack (in Belfast)

This splitting of the Unionist bloc could have been avoided if people had waited and:

The best had been made of the situation, and [if] all been advised to vote for the Unionist the strength of the three parties in the constituency would have been ascertained.

So much for that. As it was, the majority of Unionist electors looked set to put themselves in the Donnelly camp, not that the Armagh Guardian liked that any better:

Those who vote for him will say they have chosen the least of two evils, but under the circumstances the Unionists should support a Unionist candidate when he has come forward, and not have the discredit of becoming supporters of a party who will not given them any liberty or toleration.

In case its readers still did not get it: “Those who vote for Donnelly vote for Redmond and home rule.”[17]

The Political Position of the North

Ultimately, however, Unionist angst was a sideshow. The by-election had begun as and would remain a Green-on-Green feud, between the IPP and the Sinn Féin and their respective pitches to Nationalist Ireland. Canvassers for the latter who entered the constituency expecting an extension of their budding war with Britain were to be brutally disabused.

“The political position in the North at this time was Orangemen versus Hibernian,” bemoaned Laurence Nugent from Dublin. “Nationality or the freedom of the country was not considered.”

Milroy left devlin right 27th January
Speakers during the Armagh election: Seán Milroy for Sinn Fén (left) vs Joe Devlin (IPP, right), from ‘Irish Independent’, 27th January 1918

Also unsettling were the tribal politics that greeted them: “The AOH held sway, and they treated us as Orangemen.” Such was the local aversion to the outsiders that schoolchildren would not accept the pamphlets and leaflets offered by the Sinn Féiners, who resorted to leaving their literature on the roadside, underneath stones against the wind, in the hope of them being picked up and read later. An attempt at Southern-Northern dialogue at one house was concluded with a bucket of water thrown over Nugent and his companions.

And that was not the worst that could be hurled. Nugent saw one Sinn Féin speaker, J.K. O’Reilly, suffer the stones and sods from the men, women and children in an area otherwise known for its hospitality – and O’Reilly had not even had the chance to speak. Irish politics had long been of the rough-and-tumble sort, and Nugent had had his share of scrapes in the by-elections of the previous year, but “in Longford we were attacked only by the roughs of the town…here in South Armagh we were attacked by the population generally.”[18]

Joe Devlin

Nugent evidently was still troubled by the memories from the campaign when he wrote the above years later, in 1953, as part of his submission to the Bureau of Military History. He rather downplayed the politics at stake; contrary to his assertion that ‘the freedom of the country’ was not a matter of interest, a speech by Joe Devlin, MP for Belfast West, about how Ireland “must have the completest form of self-government that was ever given to any people…the same form of government as had been given to Canada, to Australia, to New Zealand,” shows that the IPP still hoped to keep its flagship policy of Home Rule alive.[19]

Contemporary accounts do corroborate the violence on display or the threat of it; such was the hostility of the crowd at one Sinn Féin rally that Dr Russell McNabb threatened to open fire with his gun if they did not back away. At Bessbrook, the aggression was limited to the verbal – at least initially. When Éamon de Valera was introduced on stage as the President of the Irish Republic, “What’s your policy?” was shouted at him. After de Valera replied that he would answer that soon, more heckles were cast his way – “What’s your nationality?”, “Go back to Spain” and “It’s not your flag, anyway”, the last being when de Valera pointed to the Red Hand on the banner above a pipe band and announced it as the flag of Ulster.

Dev at Crossmaglen 27th II
Éamon de Valera arriving at Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh, from the ‘Irish Independent’, 27th January 1918

De Valera pressed on. For McCartan to be elected would send a message across to America that no British censor could hide. McCartan stood for self-determination. Did the other side? The IPP had already displayed its incompetence and stupidity. No less a figure than Dr Edward O’Dwyer, the late Bishop of Limerick, had said as much to de Valera on the eve of last year’s East Clare by-election: “There will be no advance in Ireland until you sweep that rubbish out of the land.” When de Valera replied that the IPP would die out by itself, His Eminence had declared: “If you want to have a real Irish nation, such as you desire, you, first of all, must clean out the rubbish and build from a decent foundation.”

As for Unionists, they must make up for their minds whether they were to be a British garrison or fellow Irishmen. “If they are content to be a British garrison, we have only one thing to do, and that is not to try to conciliate them,” de Valera said. Unionists were a rock on the road and, as such, they must be stormed or, if necessary, blasted out of the path.

Countess Markievicz

Strong words, indeed; earlier at the demonstration, Countess Markievicz has declared that Sinn Féin would go on until the entire connection with England was cut with knife and sword and gun. Stronger actions followed; afterwards, “many scenes and encounters took place between the rival parties and the windows of the S.F. Committee Rooms were smashed,” reported the Armagh Guardian.[20]

Discipline and Élan

Given the numbers of men flowing into South Armagh, armed and ready on behalf of their respective parties, it was hardly surprising that blows would be thrown. The appearance of the Irish Volunteers in particular warranted the attention of journalistic pens. “A number of these were in a sort of uniform presumed to be that of the embryo Republic and carried pikes,” the Armagh Guardian wrote with an audible sniff. The newspaper would go further in its contempt, dismissing the “senseless parades of men in ill-fitting semi-military dress even when they carry tin pikes.”[21]

Irish Volunteers

Meanwhile, the Freeman’s Journal, despite its role as the IPP’s mouthpiece, managed to be a little more neutral in its description of the opposing faction:

Many of the Sinn Feiners wore the green uniform of the Volunteers, with Sam Browne belts to distinguish the officers. Others were in civilian clothes, with white armbands and shamrock-shaped paper backers in their hats bearing a portrait of their candidate.[22]

Writing to Dublin Castle for his monthly report on the state of the country, the RIC Inspector-General estimated the numbers of Irish Volunteers in South Armagh for the election to be six or seven hundred. Other than the military manoeuvres displayed, “they appear to have done nothing” and despite the equally militant presence of the AOH and other IPP heavies, “no collisions occurred.”[23]

This was not quite true, unless the Inspector-General meant ‘no collisions occurred’ in comparison to the other elections. In South Longford, for instance, one laneway in Longford town was dubbed ‘the Dardanelles’ due to the frequency and ferocity of stones and bottles flung. While South Armagh on polling day was “more like what one would expect in Petrograd or the Ukraine than in a peaceful Irish county,” the Freeman’s Journal still considered the behaviour of both Sinn Féin and Hibernian patrols to be “happily modelled on that of the famous Duke of York, who marched his men up hill and marched them down again.”[24]

Passing a country road 31 sf on left ipp rightCat-and-mouse games were generally the order of the day, as the various groups shadowed each other, drawing up with clubs in hand at the sight of their rivals and otherwise making their presence known in response to the other’s but, as at Newtownhamilton, preferring the threat of violence rather than taking the step into the real thing. For the most part, anyway; later reminiscences preferred to dwell on the clash of arms that broke out. Since these tellers had been with Sinn Féin or the Irish Volunteers, a heroic light was cast accordingly on their side, a typical example being about a brawl in Crossmaglen: “The discipline and elan [sic] of the volunteers prevailed against an unorganised mob [of Hibernians] and they cleared the large square of the town.”[25]

Contemporary accounts could be more intrigued by the more standard electioneering methods in use. “Judging by the amount of election literature distributed in all parts of the constituency there is no shortage of paper in South Armagh,” noted the Evening Herald wryly. Alas, “it was not a musical election,” with the Hibernians chanting “Yah! Yah! Yah!” incessantly or singing The Bells are A-Ringing. The Sinn Féin camp, meanwhile, stuck to A Soldier’s Song.

Ag left p meehan right 30th January
Arthur Griffith (Sinn Féin, left) and P. Meehan (IPP, right)

The gulf between the Nationalist contingents appeared unbridgeable and not just in musical taste. When the polls were closed and the ballots taken in sealed boxes to the Newry Workhouse to await the morning’s count, certain Sinn Féiners, Darrell Figgis among them, insisted on keeping watch to prevent any nocturnal interference. This prompted the IPP to do the same and so eight politicians, four from each party, spent the night together, along with the four policemen assigned, in the room outside the one where the boxes were stored.[26]

What fun that must have been!

Dumb Founding

The Armagh Guardian believed that ‘borrowed’ votes from Unionists would be enough to push Donnelly over the finishing line for the IPP. The Ulster Gazette and Armagh Standard was not so sure: “The appearance of the Unionist candidate has caused perturbation in the Irish Party Camp, where it is believed that the deflection of several hundred Unionists may lead to the defeat of Mr Donnelly.” True, Richardson had withdrawn, but as his name remained on the ballot-papers, that still could lead to “the event of a three-cornered race” in which, according to the Irish Independent, “the chances of the Irish Party candidate would appear to be doubtful.”[27]

Dev addressing, 4 feb
Crowds and police outside the Newry Workhouse as the votes were counted, from ‘Irish Independence’, 4th February 1918

Not so doubtful was Kevin O’Shiel, confident as he was of another Sinn Féin success, as were many of his fellow canvassers for that party. After all, they had had four electoral wins already. Hence their surprise – “dumb-founded” as O’Shiel put it – when the count was declared outside the Newry Workhouse on the 2nd February 1918:[28]

Patrick Donnelly (Irish Parliamentary Party) – 2,324

Patrick McCartan (Sinn Féin) – 1,305

Richardson (Independent Unionist, retired) – 40

Michael Collins

“Taking the political events of 1918,” Michael Collins told journalist Hayden Talbot in 1922, “the most important incident was the South Armagh election.” Even years afterwards, the failure stung: “Unquestionably the result of that election was a serious setback for our policy.”[29]

The IPP had thus pulled off its first victory against a previously unstoppable Sinn Féin, and at almost double the votes at that. Cheering crowds accompanied the newly-minted MP for South Armagh to the Imperial Hotel, passing a line of Irish Volunteers as they did so. No trouble occurred then, nor did anyone interrupt Donnelly as he proclaimed the win as the greatest blow for Irish freedom for the last fifty years.

Donnelly 4th
Patrick Donnelly MP, from ‘Irish Independent’, 4th February 1917

As well as that, Donnelly continued, the election was a message of conciliation to the British people, a sign that the Nationalists and Unionists of Ulster could work together and proof that the forces of disorder would not encroach into the North. That last point was the theme of the subsequent speeches at the Imperial Hotel: Canon Quinn of Camlough called for cheers for the “sane electors of South Armagh,” while Joe Devlin praised the win “for well-ordered government, for union, for toleration, for conciliation amongst all good men.”

A very different mood was to be found elsewhere in town, over at the Sinn Féin Committee Room. The result, announced de Valera, was only to be expected of a constituency with a heavy Unionist population. Since Unionists knew only Sinn Féin could beat Unionism, they had voted accordingly. Arthur Griffith blamed “a combination of the forces of English ascendancy and rotten place-hunters” while promising that the IPP would be vanquished for good in the general election in six months’ time. Countess Markievicz struck a similarly hopeful note, reminding her audience that only a battle had been lost, not the war.[30]

Dev addressing, 4 feb
Photograph of Éamon de Valera addressing disappointed supporters after the election, from ‘Irish Independent’, 4th February 1918

All of which would be proved true enough. But, given the novelty of recent success, the Irish Party could perhaps be excused for revelling in the moment.

See also:

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

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

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

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


[1] Freeman’s Journal, 15/01/1918

[2] Armagh Guardian, 18/01/1918

[3] Freeman’s Journal, 15/01/1918

[4] O’Hegarty, P.S. The Victory of Sinn Féin (Dublin: University College Dublin, 2015), p. 19

[5] Gwynn, Stephen. John Redmond’s Last Years (London: Edward Arnold, 1919), pp. 259-60

[6] Nationality, 19/01/1918, 26/01/1918

[7] Armagh Guardian, 25/01/1918

[8] Freeman’s Journal, 21/01/1918

[9] Grant, John (BMH / WS 658), p. 5

[10] Kavanagh, Seamus (BMH / WS 1053), pp. 15-7

[11] McCoy, John (BMH / WS 492), p. 21

[12] Ibid, pp. 23-4

[13] Irish Catholic, 01/12/1917 ; story of the St Columcille Prophecy from Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 135-6

[14] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8545

[15] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part 5), pp. 143-6

[16] Armagh Guardian, 25/01/1918

[17] Ibid, 01/02/1918

[18] Nugent, pp. 134-6

[19] Armagh Guardian, 08/02/1918

[20] Ibid, 01/02/1918

[21] Ibid, 08/02/1918

[22] Freeman’s Journal, 02/02/1918

[23] NLI, POS 8545

[24] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), p. 144 ; Freeman’s Journal, 02/02/1918

[25] McGuill, James (BMH / WS 353), p. 31

[26] Evening Herald, 02/02/1918

[27] Armagh Guardian, 01/02/1918 ; Ulster Gazette and Armagh Standard, 02/02/1918 ; Irish Independent, 28/01/1918

[28] O’Shiel, Part VI, p. 2

[29] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), p. 50

[30] Armagh Guardian, 08/02/1918



Armagh Guardian

Evening Herald

Freeman’s Journal

Irish Catholic

Irish Independent


Ulster Gazette and Armagh Standard


Clarke, Kathleen. Revolutionary Woman: 1878-1972, An Autobiography (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1991)

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

O’Hegarty, P.S. The Victory of Sinn Féin (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2015)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Grant, John, WS 658

Kavanagh, Seamus, WS 1053

McCoy, John, WS 492

McGuill, James, WS 353

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records


Refuge for a Scoundrel: The Crimes and Chutzpah of James Redican in the Irish War of Independence

New Powers, Old Cases

When is a robbery not a robbery? When committed for the higher cause of one’s country, or so argued James and Thomas Redican before the inquiry convened to hear their case in May 1922. Of the pair, only James was present, albeit conditionally, on parole from the hospital in which he was being held under guard as a result of his sixteen-day-long hunger strike, undertaken in protest at his treatment.

Redican headline
The Irish Times covering the case, 04/05/1922

He and his brother had been imprisoned since their British court-martial the previous year for participating in three heists on two banks in Dublin over the course of four months, netting £1,017 from the Provincial Bank on the 5th October 1920, then £2,789 from the National Bank, Baggot Street, a month later, and the National Bank again on the 7th February 1921 for £1,237. For these acts, justice had been served accordingly: James Redican sentenced to fifteen years of penal servitude, with Thomas and a third man, Thomas Weymes, each receiving twelve years.

But that was then and this was now, and it was not only the times that had changed but the powers-that-be: no longer the foreign British oppressor of old but a new, independent Irish state which owed its existence to rough-and-tumble sorts like James and Thomas Redican. ‘Justice’, too, was a manageable concept; the brothers had done what they did as part of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), under whose orders they had been carrying out – so their argument went – and, as such, the acts in question were not so much criminal as patriotic. Therefore the pair asked to be immediately freed; other political prisoners had already been so, and the Redicans could claim to be as political as anyone.

Site of the former National Bank on Baggot Street Bridge, where the robbery took place

“If the new authorities wish it,” read their petition for release:

We can give them the names of others (officers in the IRA) who were with us, and who got an equal share of the money seized. This question of equally dividing money seized by us was decided by a man from IRA headquarters, as a result of a previous case investigated by Dublin and Mullingar.

If that was not proof enough:

Do the IRA authorities deny our having been engaged in certain operations against British Crown forces? If so, we can supply particulars.

Overseeing the inquiry in the Court of Conscience, South William Street, Dublin, were James Creed Meredith, as president, and Arthur Clery. Both were judges in the Republican Supreme Court, whose writ now ran in Ireland, triumphant over the British Crown’s, but the two Sinn Féin worthies seemed oddly ill at ease with their new responsibility.

City Assembly House, 55 South William Street, Dublin, site of the former Court of Conscience

“I take it that we have no right to consider the competency of this tribunal,” said a hesitant Meredith, “or to make any recommendations as to the nature of the court-martial by which these prisoners were tried?”

Charles Power, representing the IRA GHQ, said that was indeed the case, however hard it may be to swallow. The only question for the court before them was whether the Redicans had indeed been acting under IRA directives. Which, Meredith complained, was too narrow a scope to work with. His own view was that any and all sentences issued by British court-martials – their legitimacy now questionable at best – should be reviewed.

This would set a dangerous precedence, warned Power. Was every murderer, rapist and common criminal liable for release now? There was no question of James Redican, for one, being innocent, for Power had with him a letter written by the defendant, stating that: “On the 7th February we robbed the bank, but we claim to get out, because we are members of the IRA.” So this was hardly a miscarriage of justice.

Furthermore, to the IRA command, the suggestion that it was complicit in the Redicans’ deeds – or misdeeds – amounted to scurrilous slander, prompting Power to demand on its behalf that James Redican either support his claims with evidence or withdraw them. Power also objected to Meredith’s and Clery’s stated preference for a postponement, while Redican repeated to the court his line that everything he had done had been per instruction – and that he was far from the only one involved. All local IRA companies had been told to see to their own finances, and if Redican was to give all the names of the other IRA officers who did the same as he had done, then the list would include most of the South Westmeath (Mullingar) Brigade.[1]

Irish Volunteers/IRA members

Claiming the Past

If that skirted unpleasantly close to blackmail on Redican’s part, then it would not be the last time. Writing thirteen years later, in July 1935, Redican, by then resident in England, warned in his appeal to John W. Delunty, High Commissioner of the Irish Free State, that he had in his corner certain unspecified ‘British revolutionaries’.

As part of his work with these comrades, Redican had recently received:

5,000 leaflets and sandwich boards to picket and distribute leaflets outside I.F.S. offices in Regent St. [London] The British revolutionaries will be with me WHEN I do picket but I will hold up my leaflets for another short period.

In case the message was not clear: “I think that you may cause Pensions Dept. to hurry my claim.”[2]

For Redican was applying for a pension based on his past military service, the latest of many attempts. The first had been shortly after the Civil War, for gunfire injuries sustained to his thigh and ankle at the start of the 1916 Rising, on Easter Monday, the 27th April, while acting as a dispatch carrier between Boland’s Mill and Clanwilliam House. In that, at least, official memoranda was on his side. “There was no negligence or misconduct on his part,” read a report from the Director of Intelligence in February 1925.[3]

The scars were still visible when the Medical Board inspected him a month later, noting the stiffness in Redican’s right ankle and a slight drop-foot. An attempt to claim as well for a bayonet-wound to the hand was considered an application too far by the Minister of Finance, as the date of the incident, during training with the Irish Volunteers in October 1915, was before “active service conditions” became the norm in Ireland and thus ineligible.[4]

Nonetheless, while much of what Redican said about himself would be questionable, disputed or suspect, that he had been ‘out’ in Easter Week and paid the price in blood was true enough, as corroborated by Seán Byrne. Those five days of warfare in Dublin would become a blur to Byrne but he did remember one distinct fact from his time as a first aid worker and that was James Redican as his first patient, brought into the house on the corner of Clarence Street that had been turned into a field hospital, with a bullet to the thigh.[5]

Dublin street during the 1916 Rising

This would earn him a gratuity of £100 from the Army Pensions Board, the maximum amount permitted. But, however deserved the money, his subsequent robbery convictions saw it nullified in 1925 when the Department of Justice drew the attention of the Board to this not-so-admirable exploit.[6]

A previous attempt by his parents to have the blot on his record and his brother’s overturned was also rejected by the Department of Home Affairs in August 1923. Even political status – that most treasured prize for Irish revolutionaries – had been denied to James and Thomas in the months before the Truce of 1921 “as the political prisoners who were undergoing sentences in the same prison with them refused to acknowledge them as such,” or so it was reported.[7]

The brothers had at least been afforded a special tribune by Home Affairs to look into their case but their attempts at evasion only worsened how they looked:

James denied participation in this robbery, although he was identified unquestionably, and Thomas alleged he was on that date a prisoner in Arbor Hill Prison, whereas there was ample evidence to prove that this allegation was untrue.

And, most damningly, there was “no question of its having been carried out otherwise on their own responsibility and for their own benefit.”[8]

Mullingar Exploits

It was a shame, thought Michael Murray, captain of Ballynacargy company, Co. Westmeath, for he had rather liked James Redican, considering him the ideal sort of Volunteer, gutsy and bold and unafraid of pulling off daring operations like the raid on the Hibernian Bank in Mullingar, sometime in 1920. It was only to be expected of a high-ranking officer like Redican, sent by the IRA GHQ to help further the struggle for Irish freedom being waged in Westmeath. 

50 Pearse Street, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, site of the Hibernian Bank

Neither daylight nor the presence of police nearby deterred him as he led Murray and two other Volunteers in stepping out from their car, next to the bank, with revolvers at the ready. The sigh of them as they entered was enough for one of the female staff members to faint and the rest to instantly submit, giving no resistance as the intruders found the keys to the strongroom. Word had reached the Ballynacargy company that a box of weapons had been deposited on the bank, as was proven to be the case: shotguns and revolvers were found inside, a veritable treasure-trove in a war where every firearm counted.

The box was taken out to the waiting car. Such was the inertia of the police that the Crown representatives did not react until the Volunteers were already driving away, and even then they did nothing more than follow in their own vehicle, easily being lost as the IRA party took the smaller, less frequented roads. A police search was later attempted, to no avail, and the pilfered guns remained hidden as the property of the Mullingar IRA.

It was not the first time that James Redican had helped tweak the British nose, as he had previously headed a night-time swoop on a mail-train at The Downs, Co. Westmeath. Letters were taken off and then to a safe location, to be censored – a common IRA procedure during the War of Independence – and relieved of any cash: about three hundred pounds worth, Murray estimated. That one item of correspondence was for the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland himself was just icing on the cake.

Redican’s charmed run with the Mullingar IRA came to an abrupt end when orders came from Dublin, issued by GHQ, that he was to be considered persona non grata. This took the local Volunteers by surprise, as did the revelation that their supposed GHQ representative:

…was not a member of the Volunteers at all. He was an ex-prisoner from Mountjoy Jail. Apparently while in Mountjoy he got acquainted with some Volunteer prisoners from the Mullingar area and convinced them he was up for political reasons while, in reality, he was doing time for some criminal offence. On his release he came to the Mullingar area posing as a staff officer from GHQ and soon was O.K. with the Battalion O/C and other officers.

It must be noted that while Murray assumed James Redican to be a mere criminal who had only been using the cause of Irish freedom as a camouflage, the other man could point to having been ‘out’ in Easter Week. So there is that in his defence.

Regardless of the specifics, Murray broke the news to Redican, who took the hint and left Westmeath, just in time to avoid Volunteers looking for him for other robberies committed elsewhere in the country (Redican, it seems, was a consistent man). The next Murray heard from him was a letter out of Mountjoy, where Redican was detained yet again, saying he was under threat of execution for shooting a policeman – in Leitrim, Murray thought Redican said, or somewhere near there. Murray was telling his story in 1956, to the Bureau of Military History, so a fuzziness on details is perhaps to be expected, such as whether the money taken from the mail-train was passed on to his superiors or went no further than the participants’ pockets, or if the action had been sanctioned at all.[9]

Constantly Pending Instructions

Judging by the tone of the letter between the IRA Adjutant-General, Gearóid O’Sullivan, to Michael Collins as Director of Intelligence, on the 1st March 1921, the answer to all of the above questions was ‘no’:

You spoke to me on one occasion when I was in town about Seamus [James] Redican of Boyle. You mentioned GHQ wanted this man and a man named Murray in connection with a robbery on mails in Mullingar. Both of these men are at present in Ballinacarrigy, Co. Westmeath.

O’Sullivan was quoting Seán Mac Eoin, the O/C of the Longford IRA Brigade. Mac Eoin finished with a slightly ominous: “If GHQ wanted these men presently I can get and hold them pending instructions.”

Seán Mac Eoin

In keeping with the elusive nature of anything connected with the Redican brothers, O’Sullivan had to admit to Collins: “I do not remember ever having mentioned this to O/C Longford Brigade. Had you the matter on hands?” While Collins, in his reply the following day, did “recollect that the O/C Longford did mention to me that you or someone at H.Q. told him the above fact”, Collins had “never mentioned the matter to” Mac Eoin before. Collins agreed that James Redican was due for “some action”, though one particular point perplexed him: “It is a fact – isn’t it – that he was to have been arrested on a former occasion?”[10]

Clearly, Redican’s name had been circulating among the upper echelons of the IRA for a while. The next occasion was a week after O’Sullivan’s letter, this time between Richard Mulcahy, as the Chief of Staff, and the Minister of Defence, Cathal Brugha. Typing on GHQ headed paper, Mulcahy laid out the facts of the case against Redican:

The previous cases against Redican which can be definitely vouched for are that while going through Mails as a Volunteer in Mullingar he stole money and later that he made a statement to the Police Authorities while in their hands that he robbed Banks under instructions from Volunteer officers [underlined in original].

Which led to the obvious question:

What are we to do with him? Although the last case mentioned is very definite no steps have been taken to follow up the charges made in the attached papers and I do not like to give anybody the work of following it up until we are clear that if Redican is now in touch with the enemy in any way likely to be prejudicial to us, that he can be dealt with without any consideration for anything that he may have been or anything that he may have suffered in the past.

Cathal Brugha

Mulcahy did not have to specify what he meant by ‘dealt with’. Less obvious was the handwritten note at the bottom of Mulcahy’s text, presumably from Brugha: “The statement made considering him at a meeting of the staff at which I was present was somewhat different from above.” No further clarification was offered.[11]

Collins was more direct in his own message to Brugha on the 23rd March. He had previously heard about James Redican but was less concerned at the time about the alleged money theft than some documents which had gone missing. Now that the situation had gone on for as long as it had, Collins was impatient to see proceed it no further: “If we do not mean to act in a case like this, it is a pity that we should waste our time over this worthless fellow.”[12]

Brugha, for once, was in agreement with Collins:

I certainly do not want time to be lost pursuing Redican and if you consider that the matter not sufficient ground for going on with, the whole matter may be dropped and the papers even scrapped.[13]

Arresting the miscreant and leaving him with a warning to mend his ways should be enough, in Brugha’s opinion. However, even then, Redican continued to exert a strange power to befuddle even the steely minds of the IRA GHQ, for Brugha did not make his opinion into an order, instead advising that the Dublin IRA Brigade be consulted before a final decision was reached.[14]

The Need for Certainty

Whatever was said to whom about what, Mulcahy’s fears that the man of the moment would be ‘in touch with the enemy in any way likely to be prejudicial’ to them appeared to be borne out by a note from the Intelligence Officer from the Mullingar IRA, dated to the 8th March 1921. Word had reached him that someone – a prisoner, seemingly – had told the British authorities about the rifles stored in Mooney’s Ironmongers on Earl Street, Mullingar.

“Do you know anything of this matter?” asked the officer. “I wonder who would the prisoner be?”[15]

Mullingar_Intelligence FileThree days later, on the 11th March, he believed he had his answer:

The report that is here is that Redican from Boyle knew where all was stored and gave all the information when arrested in Dublin. It looks as if some one gave a straight tip as they went right to where it was but it was changed a few hours so they missed it.[16]

Michael Collins

Nonetheless, Collins urged caution. “It would be a mistake, I think, to accept a statement from an enemy, and regard it as being absolutely correct,” he wrote to the other man on the 13th April 1921. He advised contacting one of the many moles the IRA had within the enemy establishment; after all, “you would need to be very definitely certain of these things.”[17]

Two months after the initial warning, on the 10th May, Collins had a name to put to the suspected leak, “our friend Weymes”, the third man convicted with the Redican brothers for the robberies. According to a source in Mountjoy, Weymes had been writing to prison officials:

…asking that the charge be withdrawn as Redicans and himself had given so much information. He also said that if the three of them were out they would be better than the whole secret service as they knew most of the H.Q. people and also their hiding places.

Even then, the benefit of the doubt was given: “Weymes may be pulling the Comdt’s leg, but you will know best.”[18]

Further information was considered necessary – and, two days later, the IRA intelligence network had it. Weymes had sent out two letters, one to ‘Crosbie’ asking him to call in on ‘5 Mount’ to see a ‘doctor’ who would give him ‘something for your pains’, and a similar one to a ‘Mr Cyrrill’ in Mullingar, also recommending a ‘doctor’.

“I wonder if you can explain any of the above references,” Collins asked the Mullingar Intelligence Officer, who presumably had a greater local knowledge. “There is a Crosbie of Mullingar – isn’t there? – I wonder if Weymes would be writing to him?”[19]

The Quartermaster of the Mullingar Brigade wrote back the day after, the 13th May, as his Intelligence Officer was unavailable. Despite asking around, he had no knowledge of any ‘Cyrrill’, nor could guess at who the ‘doctor’ could be. ‘Cyrill’ may be Captain Cyril Crowther, a policeman who had been stationed in Mullingar and now in Dublin, where he might have met either James Redican or Weymes. Alternatively, the mystery man could be Seery, a gambling type Weymes had given money to before when both were in Mullingar. Not only was Seery also currently in Dublin, he had been seen in the company of James Redican and Weymes. Adding to the intrigue, Weymes previously posted to Mullingar through the post office in Ballynacargy, Co. Westmeath, a registered packet of £1 notes, fifty-five in total.[20]

Otherwise, the Mullingar Quartermaster could provide little else besides a promise to make further inquiries into Seery. Collins was not wholly satisfied with this progress or how it had been conducted, telling the other man:

I note what you say, but you should not say ‘you have been informed’ without indicating where the information comes from, or whether you regard it as being reliable.[21]

By the time Michael Murray wrote to the Bureau of Military History in 1956, the question of Redican’s guilt had been concluded for him: “While [in Mountjoy] he gave information to the British authorities about the Mullingar area.” Another erstwhile comrade from his Mullingar days, Michael McCoy, who had helped Redican loot the mail-train at The Downs, likewise struggled to give him the benefit of the doubt: “It was suspected that Redican then gave information to the British authorities as to the location of the arms in Mullingar.”

McCoy himself helped to relocate the rifles before the police could follow up on their tip (in his version, they were hidden not in Mooney’s Ironmongers on Earl Street but inside McDonnell’s bakery in Dominick Street). Interestingly, he ascribed the arrests of the Redican brothers and Weymes to Collins passing on the identities of the three miscreants to the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP) once he heard about their bank robberies. No motive for this unusual largesse is given, assuming it is true – judging by the paperwork, Collins did not seem any more knowledgeable than his GHQ colleagues about the case or certain about what to do about it.[22]

Postcard depicting Dominick Street, Mullingar, Co. Westmeath

Still, some progress was made. Come September, Mullingar was able to provide Dublin with a photograph of Weymes, with a promise to obtain one of James Redican. Since both men and Thomas Redican had been already convicted of the heists – along with, in James’ case, shooting with intent to murder as part of the aforementioned crimes – little else could be done against them. Prison was inadvertently keeping the trio safe and, in any case, Collins, Brugha and the rest of the IRA would have slightly bigger priorities as 1921 moved on into 1922.[23]

‘As Well As He Might’

The two Thomases, Redican and Weymes, were each sentenced to twelve years of penal servitude, while James, evidently considered the most culpable of the gang, receiving fifteen. None of them would serve their full respective lengths.[24]

According to Weymes, he was released from Mountjoy in January 1922 with the rest of the political prisoners, the circumstances of his detainment evidently not held against him. He joined the anti-Treaty side during the Civil War, specifically the Active Service Unit in North Dublin City, and from there Weymes slips from the historical record, save for an unsuccessful application for an IRA pension in 1940. Part of its failure was due to his failure to obtain references from his former comrades in Mullingar, who returned his letters unanswered.[25]

Both Redican brothers had to wait until July 1924 for their own freedom. A DMP report in August 1925 found James to be:

…frequently through the City and Suburbs, he is always well dressed, and as far as I can see, well conducted. He appears to be in good circumstances, although, as far as I can ascertain, he is not in any employment.

Another report that same year gave an answer to the question of income, as well doubt on the ‘good conduct’ observation. James was apparently:

…running a lottery at 34 Lower Abbey Street; that he was seen in possession of a revolver, and that he was believed to be living with another man’s wife.

This was despite him still being out on licence. Due to the refusal of witnesses to come forward, however, the incorrigible James Redican remained at liberty.[26]

Éamon de Valera

The ‘good circumstances’ did not last. By 1935, he was in Fulham, England, “down and out, destitute, without any fixed abode,” so he told the Irish authorities in his quest for the IRA pension that had been first granted and then snatched from him. This denial was due to the jealously of “featherbed soldiers” in the Dáil and the military; if only the Pension Board would ask Éamon de Valera and see what the President had to say about his old bosom buddy.


I am the man who influenced, took from his home and introduced into the Irish Volunteer movement Eamonn de Valera. We – de Valera and myself – were wonderful comrades. There were not any secrets between us. I was de Valera’s A.D.C and on Easter Monday 1916 I did deliver over to de Valera the orders given to me by P.H. Pearse from G.H.Q. Staff, Liberty Hall, Dublin, to seize positions and fight the British. I fell wounded in that fight Easter Week 1916.[27]

Somehow this incredible connection has escaped the notice of historians. As for Thomas Redican, the DMP report of 1925 had this to say:

Certain members of this Department have strong reasons for believing that James J. is not conducting himself as well as he might, but there is no reason to suspect so far that Thomas is concerned with anything wrong although he is constantly seen in company with his brother.[28]

Unlike James, Thomas managed to stay on the straight and narrow, even if that required a bit of tinkering with the historical record.

When signing up for the Irish army in 1927, his prior conviction was raised in the background checks but Thomas was able to persuade the Department of Justice that the robberies had indeed been committed on the orders of his superior officer, or so he had believed at the time. That was considered valid enough to let him enlist and a further report in 1930, prior his transfer to the reserve, decided that he had merely been a ‘dupe’ or a ‘tool’ for others. Thomas went on to enjoy a successful career in the military until his discharge in August 1939, his character being noted as ‘very good’.[29]

So perhaps there is hope for (almost) everyone, after all.


[1] Irish Times, 29/06/1921, 04/05/1922

[2] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Redican, James’ (MSP34REF521)

[3] Ibid, IP700, p. 48

[4] Ibid, pp. 10-11, 16

[5] Byrne, Sean (BMH / WS 422), pp. 9-10

[6] Ibid, IP700, p. 8

[7] Ibid, p. 34

[8] Ibid, p. 35

[9] Murray, Michael (BMH / WS 1498), pp. 9-10

[10] Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks, Michael Collins Papers, ‘Typed and handwritten communications mainly between Intelligence Officer, Mullingar Brigade (Westmeath) and Intelligence Staff, General Headquarters, I.R.A.’, IE-MA-CP-05-02-33, pp. 7-8

[11] Ibid, p. 9

[12] Ibid, p. 28

[13] Ibid, pp. 28-9

[14] Ibid, p. 32-3

[15] Ibid, p. 25

[16] Ibid, pp. 10, 12

[17] Ibid, p. 41

[18] Ibid, p. 57

[19] Ibid, p. 59

[20] Ibid, pp. 61, 64, 75-76

[21] Ibid, p. 82

[22] Murray, p. 10 ; McCoy, Michael (BMH / WS 1610), p. 27

[23] Collins Papers, p. 106

[24] Irish Times, 29/06/1921

[25] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Weymes, Thomas’ (MSP34REF41338), pp. 19, 29

[26] ‘Redican, James’ (MSP34REF521), pp. 32-3

[27] Ibid, pp. 81-2

[28] ‘Redican, James’, p. 33

[29] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Redican, Thomas’ (W34E8718), pp. 25-6



Irish Times

Military Service Pensions Collection

Redican, James, MSP34REF521, IP700

Redican, Thomas, W34E8718

Weymes, Thomas, MSP34REF41338

Bureau of Military History Statements

Byrne, Sean, WS 422

McCoy, Michael, WS 1610

Murray, Michael, WS 1498

Military Archives – Cathal Brugha Barracks

Michael Collins Papers

Sparks Among the Embers: The Battle of Pettigo and Belleek, May-June 1922

‘Difficult and Delicate’

It was not certain if the fighting that broke out near the village of Belleek, Co. Fermanagh, at the end of May 1922 – and which would spread to nearby Pettigo in Co. Donegal – was a last exchange in the past war or the opening of a new one. Actually, many things were unclear, as reports from the ground differed from each other on various points, but enough could be glimpsed through the fog of war for the Irish Times to inform its readers how:

Following the sending of reinforcements to Belleek by the Northern [Irish] Government, there was a conflict between the ‘Specials’ and a large party of civilians on the railway line, near Castlecaldwell [Co. Fermanagh], in Northern territory. Both sides opened fire simultaneously, and an engagement, which lasted for twenty minutes, followed.

The newspaper was being perhaps a bit literal in its terminology as the ‘civilians’ in question were, if not quite professional soldiers, at least combatants from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Five had been reported killed (with emphasis on ‘reported’ for the total tally of fatalities would fall short of that), with no losses by the ‘Specials’, the armed policemen of the Ulster Special Constabulary who had been sparring with the IRA for the past few months over the newly laid Border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. By itself the violence was nothing new or even unusual, but what made this skirmish dangerously noteworthy was the escalation that followed, when a police convoy of a Lancia car and three Crossley tenders ventured over their side of the Border on the Sunday evening of the 28th May.

Ulster Special Constabulary riding a Lancia armoured car

Once in Free State territory, the policemen found themselves under attack:

The driver of the Lancia car was shot dead, and his vehicle turned into the ditch. The ‘Specials’ took cover, and, having returned the fire, they managed to escape, but they had to abandon the three motor cars.

Now occupied by IRA forces, the hitherto unremarkable village of Belleek was rapidly becoming a flashpoint for war. But it was the city of Derry – or Londonderry if one prefers – where the danger was most keenly felt, at least by the worthy representatives in the House of Commons who barraged Winston Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, with questions, each seeking to prise a little more sense out of the situation. Did he have any information, asked Major Boyd Carpenter, on the alleged massing of the ‘Sinn Féin forces’ on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier, and was the Government taking any precautions for the defence of Londonderry, dangerously exposed as it was to this threatened incursion?

The ‘Sinn Féin forces’ – IRA men

If Carpenter was hoping for reassurance, then he was to be disappointed, for Churchill had little to offer save confessed ignorance and bland platitudes:

I have no information beyond what I have seen in the newspapers about the alleged massing of Sinn Fein forces and many motor vehicles on the Donegal borders of Derry, but the Government of Northern Ireland and the Military Commander-in-Chief on the spot may be trusted to take whatever measures are necessary.

NPG x122829; Ronald John McNeill, Baron Cushendun by Bassano
Ronald McNeill, MP for Canterbury

This only stirred rather than soothed the gathered Members of Parliament (MPs). Ronald McNeill inquired if these measures included action against those on the Free State side of the Border, after which Colonel Ashley wanted to know if the British Commander-in-Chief of Northern Ireland was instructed to support the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland without first checking with the British Government. Churchill did his best to stonewall these queries by giving the broadest of answers with the minimum of detail: any Border-crossing by His Majesty’s forces would be a matter of consideration by the Cabinet. As for the Commander-in-Chief, General Cameron could indeed act unilaterally, assuming it was on the Northern Irish side of the border.

When pressed by Captain Craig on the likelihood of the Border being crossed by Irish forces, whether IRA or by the Free State, Churchill could only reply, with a touch of exasperation: “I cannot give an exhaustive account of the subjects which the Cabinet has taken into consideration.”

Winston Churchill

Even Churchill’s promise that the situation would be discussed with Michael Collins and the rest of the Free State leadership scarcely mollified his audience. On the contrary, Captain Charles Craig sounded positively incredulous at the implication of what the other man had just said.

Craig: Are we to understand that these important matters have not been dealt with in the conference with Mr Collins and his colleagues?

Churchill: I am not prepared to say what portion of the difficult and delicate questions of the Irish situation have been discussed between the British representatives and of the Irish Government.[1]

‘A Festering Sore’

In fairness to Churchill, it was too long and strange a tale to easily explain.

Sir Nevil Macready

Even as Crown and Irish personnel exchanged bullets outside Belleek, the birthday of King George V was being observed elsewhere in the country by a military review in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, the first such event since 1914. While it was almost certain to be the last, given the withdrawal of British forces as per the Treaty, it was still a fine display: cavalry and artillery on the right of the line, with infantry on the left, and the music bands taking up the centre. After an hour of the standard military maneuvers, General Sir Nevil Macready, Commanding-in-Chief of the forces in Ireland, stood by as the various units – the Royal Horse Artillery, the Royal Engineers, the 14th Leicestershire Regiment, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the 24th Infantry Brigade and others – marched past for his inspection, each displaying their regimental colours.[2]

Although a seasoned professional, Macready could not help but be moved by the sight, particularly of the old pensioners from the Royal Hospital, adorned in their medals, and the boys of the Royal Hibernian School, their red tunics adding a dash of colour to the otherwise khaki formations: two time-honoured institutions Macready guessed would not survive the passing of the old order for very long.[3]

British soldiers in 1922, preparing to evacuate from Dublin

But Macready had little time for melancholy. News of the latest trouble did not surprise him overly; for all his disdain of everything Irish, a feeling nurtured from years of trying to untangle the politics of the place, he was perceptive enough to grasp the potential for trouble at the Border, “a festering sore in the relations between the two parts of Ireland,” as he put it.

The area around Pettigo and Belleek in particular:

…is one of the geographical anomalies of the border link between Northern and Southern Ireland. A triangle some sixteen miles at the base, and seven from base to apex, it is cut off on the south by Lough Erne and the River Erne from the rest of County Fermanagh to which it belongs, and in order to enter it either from the North by the railway or main road, or from the direction of Garrison in the South, it is necessary to cross into Donegal for short distances, which in itself will always be sufficient to start trouble.

As if that was not enough, “a few snipers on this hill could effectually prevent any movement in the village.”

Pettigo map
Map of the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle, from the Belfast News-Letter (10 June 1922)

From the reports Macready received, “a few armed scallywags on the Pettigoe [alternative spelling] Triangle” were exploiting this small but strategically significant position. Macready assumed that the rascals in question were of the anti-Treaty IRA, which was at least easy to understand; after all, the Anti-Treatyites rejected the new rapprochement between Ireland and Britain, determined as they were to resume the previous war. But what made things trickier was how the Free State authorities, who were supposed to be as opposed to the Anti-Treatyites as the Anti-Treatyites were to the Free State, “were not too happy because they knew that men whom they claimed as their adherents were not entirely unconnected with all the trouble on the border” or so Macready suspected.

Michael Collins

Michael Collins, Chairman of the Provisional Government and its de facto decision-maker, exemplified this slipperiness in Macready’s view, being “a thorough Irishman” in having “lots of arguments that the fault was not his,” an effect mollified somewhat by the ironic twinkle in the eye. The British general did give Collins credit for taking “no offence at having things put plainly before him” and the Corkonian had been equally direct with Macready for the past few months.

What he wanted, what he needed, were two things, Collins told Macready repeatedly: barracks and guns. With British forces withdrawing out of the former, Collins wanted his partisans to replace them before the Anti-Treatyites could. Guns were also a critical factor in the unbalanced Irish equitation, of which Republicans currently had the advantage, but Collins believed if he was given more, thousands would be signing up in support of the Free State.

“Eventually Collins received all the arms he asked for. It would be interesting to know the number of rifles, revolvers and machine guns now scattered about Ireland,” Macready later wrote. “The result would, I think, be startling.”[4]

If only Macready had known…

Mauser pistol, owned by IRA man Vinnie Byrne (now in the National Museum of Ireland)

The Army of the North?

One morning, back in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw several small vans passing by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust of the road. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now were carrying a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.[5]

Similarly perplexed was Todd Andrews, one of the garrison members at the anti-Treaty command post in the Four Courts, Dublin. While busying himself with clerical work, Andrews became aware of the lorries swapping weapons between the Four Courts and the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. Why, Andrews did not know. He saw no paperwork relating to the oddity and heard only rumours:

It transpired that our arms were intended for an ‘Army of the North’ to be created by combining pro and anti-Treaty forces with the object of mounting an attack on the recently formed Six County regime…Collins and [Liam] Lynch were the originators of the idea of an Army of the North. The exchange of arms was designed to prevent the identification of weapons which had been supplied by the British to the Provisional Government in the event of capture.[6]

Liam Lynch

Though Andrews had no other first-hand encounters with this clandestine ploy, Seán Lehane and Florence O’Donoghue did. As well as guns, Liam Lynch, as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA, would be sending men like Lehane, a Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, who was appointed O/C of this dispatch force. Andrews told of the ‘Army of the North’ in his 1979 memoir, but Lehane had done so earlier in March 1935, as part of his application to the Military Service Pensions Board. The information Lehane provided would not have been available to the general public at the time of Andrews’ autobiography but what Lehane wrote matched that of Andrews in regard to the need for secrecy on Collins’ part:

Both parties – Republican [anti-Treaty] and Free State forces – were to co-operate in giving us arms and supplies, but General Collins insisted on one thing, that activities were to be in the name of the IRA [as opposed to the Free State], and that we were to get arms – rifles – from Cork No. 1 Brigade and that we would return rifles instead to Cork 1 from those rifles handed over by the British. The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifle fell into the hands of the British.[7]

Florence O’Donoghue

Unlike Lehane, O’Donoghue was not among those selected for this mission. He was, however, a close confidant of Lynch and, as his former commander’s biographer, O’Donoghue would write in detail about the Chief of Staff’s actions at this crucial time. O’Donoghue had considerable respect for Collin as well and, to him, this secret pact between the two leaders represented:

…a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.[8]

Which may indeed have been true. But instructions given to Lehane by Lynch hint at how the parties involved were not being entirely forthright with each other, for all the talk of brotherhood bonds and shared desires.

Lehane and the rest of the expedition force were to:

…to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].[9]

In other words: to start the War of Independence all over again. This would suit Lynch and the rest of the Republicans perfectly, wrecking as it would the Treaty beyond repair; the Free Staters, not so much, since they were only intending to fight the British where they still were in Ireland, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. If Collins was pulling the wool over Macready’s eyes, then Lynch seems to have been intending to do the same to Collins.

‘You Are Our Enemies’

Joe Sweeney

That is, if we take the above sources at face value and assume Collins was entirely committed to the whole ‘Army of the North’ plan. Andrews, Lehane and O’Donoghue were all Anti-Treatyites, while no contributions have been made on the subject by Free State voices. The closest historians have is Joe Sweeney, the O/C of the pro-Treaty Donegal IRA, and his attitude towards the Anti-Treatyites in his territory was notably frigid.

“We thought Joe Sweeny and Co. would support us,” remembered one.[10]

They thought wrong. Sweeney had no problems sending revolvers and drill purpose rifles over the Border to Derry, even if the latter type were of doubtful quality as even he admitted. After all, Derry was out of his jurisdiction and thus someone else’s problem. When “Collins asked me what I thought of the prospect of a fight in the North when I handed over the drill purpose rifles,” Sweeney was not against the idea per se, but told Collins: “I wouldn’t take any joy in it nor would I send in any more.”

At other times, Sweeney’s indifference could curdle to contempt: “I had no use for the North as I thought they were no good.” Contrary to the claim that Collins was working hand in hand, even if under the table, with Republicans, Sweeney “got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, nor had I any instructions to back them up.”[11]

Seán Lehane

In fairness to Sweeney, the Anti-Treatyites who set up base in Donegal did not make for particularly easy roommates; at times, they acted more like an invasion force than allies, as a Free State convoy found when driving through Newtowncunningham on the 4th May 1922. Anti-Treatyites opened fire, inflicting grievous casualties: three killed and five wounded. Writing to the press a week later, Lehane did his best to put his side in the best light, arguing that the whole messy business could have been avoided had Sweeney been more receptive to his earlier overtures at the Free State headquarters in Drumboe Castle:

I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.

But Sweeney was having none of what the Corkman was offering:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’[12]

After the Newtowncunningham debacle, it was hard to see how the two rival IRAs could be anything else. “This clash finished what we set out to do for it finished any hope of our relationship with the Provisional Government improving, for they were getting worse,” recalled Mossy Donegan, another Corkonian. “When we looked for help from the Free State it was refused.”[13]

And yet that was not quite the case.

A Free State officer, looking rakish with his Tommy gun

Fighting alongside the Anti-Treatyites, men who were threatening the peace of his county, was probably the last thing Sweeney either wanted or anticipated at the end of May, but that is more or less what happened in the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle. At the time, though, the picture Sweeney presented was a straightforward one: all aggression had been from the British, with the Free State the sole victim of it. Particularly deplorable was “the British shelling of Pettigo resulting in the deaths of three of my men [emphasis mine].” If there had been “any serious and deliberate invasion of Northern territory” – the closest Sweeney got to admitting the possible presence of Anti-Treatyites in the area – it “was not an act of my men.”[14]

“Absolutely False and Malicious”

Needless to say, the British report on the fracas, released on the 6th June 1922, aimed its finger squarely in the opposite direction:

As a result of the continuous aggression on the part of the so-called Free Stater troops in what is known as the ‘Pettigo Salient,’ which resulted in three casualties (one of them in Pettigo) to the military during the last week, it was decided that the ‘salient’ should be occupied by Imperial [British] troops.

These ‘three casualties’ were not named or identified. Special Constable Dobson, however, received that dubious distinction, being “shot dead when in Ulster territory, half a mile from the border” and definitely not while “taking an active part in the operations.” It had been in response to sniping, aiming down from the high ground around Pettigo (the same vantage point Macready identified), that British forces opposite the village used artillery guns on the 4th June, firing half a dozen shells. After this thunderous prelude, British troops advanced on both flanks, leading to a running battle amidst hedges and ditches that lasted from about 11 o’clock to 4 in the afternoon.

Pettigo, Co. Donegal (aerial shot)

As the Irish Free State issued its own review immediately after, the authors had the opportunity to counter the other’s points. Shelling had not been in response to Dobson’s death, for the Special Constable was killed after the artillery rounds. The claim that British soldiers on their side of the Lough Erne had been fired on from the Free State-owned end was “absolutely false and malicious”, as was the accusation that British soldiers moving towards Pettigo, but still in British-held territory, had been targeted on the morning of the 4th June.

All aggression had been on the part of Crown forces, as an earlier incident on the Wednesday of the 31st May demonstrated:

A scout reported two Crossley tenders and one armoured car on the Kesh road, coming towards the border. Orders were sent out to the post covering the Kesh road not to fire unless they were attacked. Before the order reached the post a person in one of the tenders, dressed in a khaki coat and black trousers, got out of the tender, placed a Lewis gun on the fence, and opened fire on another post of ours, which guarded the left flank of Pettigo, and on our territory. The post covering the Kesh road immediately opened fire on the Lewis gunner. The men in the tenders were all dressed in black, except the one man in the khaki coat. The tenders and armoured car immediately retreated.

Not only was the restraint of the Free State soldiers emphasised but also how “there were no other Irish troops in the district then or now.”[15]

The ‘no other’ were presumably a reference to the anti-Treaty IRA, a distinction Dublin was keen to draw. As we shall see, this was not quite the case, though discerning what else was true and false is not an easy matter. Each army claimed the mantle of ‘defendant’ while pointing to the opposition as ‘attacker’, when, really, the statuses of both sides were what could be diplomatically described as ‘fluid’.

British soldiers behind a barricade in Northern Ireland (in this case, Belfast, 1922)

After all, “for a considerable period prior to the British attack, intermittent fighting had been going on between out [sic] forces and the Ulster Specials and Volunteers along the Donegal-Tyrone-Fermanagh Border,” wrote J. Murray, one of the IRA participants, five years later in 1927. He added, in one of the more honest statements from that period: “It would be difficult to relate all the circumstances that led to the fighting.”[16]

‘Anything Could Happen’

By the end of the twelve days of hostilities, from the opening skirmish on the 28th May to the fall of Belleek by the 8th June, three men were dead on the Irish side, although not necessary on that of the Irish Free State, contrary to Sweeney’s insistence: Patrick Flood of Pettigo, and Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, Co. Tyrone. None were initially named in the newspapers and, when two of them were made public, through the British military inquiry in Enniskillen, they were incorrectly identified as ‘McEnweel’ and ‘Connolly’ from Rameltown, Co. Donegal.[17]

IRA men

The reason for this ignorance was calculated, for when the trio of bodies were taken to Enniskillen, false names and addresses were provided by those claiming them to better fit the narrative that the deceased had been in the service of the Free State. Lieutenant Owen McDonnell, who was sent to Donegal from Dublin to assess the situation post-battle, estimated that of the twenty-five IRA men who had come over the Border to Pettigo, fifteen had “signified their willingness to remain loyal to General Headquarters,” as in the Free State.[18]

Which would presumably mean the other ten were anti-Treaty but, to those involved, such distinctions may not have seemed terribly important. In the case of Nicholas Smyth, although he joined the Republicans when the Civil War came, his priority in May 1922 was more self-preservation than politics, and it was for that reason that he had fled his native Tyrone for Donegal.

Not all his comrades got away in time, with half the officers and rank-and-file fighters in the Tyrone IRA captured by the Northern Irish authorities (Tyrone, lest we forget, fell on the British side of the Border). Smyth himself had been warned by a sympathetic Protestant that he would be shot if caught. Once in Pettigo, Smyth was housed in the old barracks of the village with thirty or forty other IRA ‘refugees’ who busied themselves with patrol duties and plans for when they could return over the Border and renew the war for Irish freedom in their home counties. Whoever was Republican or Free State, anti or pro-Treaty, did not matter, not in that particular place or point in time – for now, all were Volunteers for Ireland, as it had been before.

248_1“Although life was dull, there was an air of expectancy about the place and one felt that anything could happen,” Smyth recalled years later, in his statement to the Bureau of Military History.

As it turned out, something did.

Given the tensions across the Border in recent months, Smyth was hardly surprised when news came, on the Sunday of the 28th May, of that skirmish with the Ulster Special Constabulary, which had resulted in a number of policemen being cut off on an island in Lough Erne. To forestall a breakout, orders were issued for the Volunteers at hand, Smyth among them, to dig a trench across the road at Pettigo Bridge:

While this work was in progress large numbers of enemy forces began to appear on the Fermanagh side of the border. As our working party was in grave danger should the enemy open fire, I was ordered to take a covering party of about 12 or 14 men to protect. These men were armed with rifles. We took up positions overlooking the bridge. The enemy forces doubled and took up positions behind a hedge (?) across from us.

In danger of being caught in a crossfire between their own side and the enemy, the trench-diggers hurriedly pulled back. Smyth told his subordinates to hold their fire but keep in position and await further orders. And there they stayed, on the possible frontline of an impending battle, for a couple of hours. The danger in the air must have spread to the village behind them as Pettigo was deathly quiet – “you could hear a pin drop,” as Smyth put – until the tension snapped with a single gunshot:

This was followed by three or four more single ones. This seemed to be a signal, because the whole place became alive with sound in a few minutes. Bullets were hitting the wall just over our heads and large lumps of lead were dropping on top of us. Our rifles were soon too hot to hold and the air was filled with the smoke and the smell of cordite.

Thankfully, the enemy withdrew before the Volunteers could exhaust their ammunition. Even then there was no respite, with the Irishmen fixed at their posts throughout the night until the Monday morning of the 29th May. Relieved of duty at 7 am, the IRA men trudged through Pettigo in twos and threes – not that the fighting refused to let them be, as Smyth found out almost to his cost:

Danny Gallagher and I were crossing the street when one of the enemy had a shot at us. The bullet hit the road just in front of us. We lay flat on the street and one of our fellows who saw the thing happening got a Thompson gun and let this sniper have a couple of bursts. We didn’t hear from him again.

Some food and a few hours of overdue sleep later, the men gathered at the old barracks, readying themselves for the next round. Monday, however, stayed quiet throughout the day and continued so at night.

Ulster Special Constabulary in a trench

Final Push

At daybreak, British forces attacked again. Smyth led a team along the railway line in order to cover the main road into Pettigo. Resistance was evidently strong, for some of the Crown combatants were retreating down the road, allowing the Volunteers a chance to snipe at them. Smyth saw how one of his comrades had fitted his rifle for hurling grenades; although none hit their target, Smyth was impressed at the innovation.

With the assailants beaten back yet again, Pettigo enjoyed a measure of quiet, save for the odd potshot. Two days later, on the 1st June, the British tried again with a frontal assault by twelve Crossley tenders carrying policemen and soldiers. The Volunteers allowed them to near before opening fire at the sight of the proverbial ‘whites of their eyes.’ IRA outposts elsewhere added their firepower, and Smyth guessed the enemy casualties to be severe, though the Crown force gave as good as it got with its machine-guns.

After half an hour, the police and soldiers fell back:

An amusing sequel to this fight was that one of the policemen, for some reason or another, didn’t leave with the rest and after the main party had moved off he started off down the road, running for all he was worth. None of our fellows fired on him, but gave him a hearty cheer.

Despite these successes, the strain was starting to be felt by the defenders of Pettigo, less than a hundred of whom were available in the village at any given time. The British, in contrast, were growing stronger, with more soldiers to be seen on Boa Island, in Lough Erne, from where two incursions were launched over the water, landing two miles down from Pettigo and forcing the Irish to divert manpower to there, as well as to another point in the Letter district, three miles away.

Lough Erne

Smyth barely had an hour in bed before a fresh attack was reported at a narrow isthmus known as Waterfoot. He arrived with the rest, having to crawl the last three hundred yards due to the bullets whizzing through the air. The Volunteers already on the scene, under the command of James Scallon, were in a perilous state, taking fire from two different directions. Smyth suggested to Scallon that they shift between these separate points so that their opponents would catch themselves in a crossfire:

We did this and it worked out as we had anticipated. When we got them properly engaged in the darkness, we returned to the safety of our trench. Their fire at each other continued for some time and eventually both parties of the enemy evacuated their positions and retreated.

The Irishmen did not, sleeping where they were until relieved. The fight was continuing here and there even as Smyth attended morning Mass in Pettigo. It was while he was leaving the church that the British played their trump card: artillery guns, the first time they had been deployed in Ireland since 1916.

Smyth hurried to the building used as their military headquarters, finding it already deserted. Even with this new level of warfare, he did not think the British would go so far as to occupy the village – only to look through a window, a quick cup of tea in hand, to see two armoured cars parked outside.

Pettigo, Co. Doengal (today)

With nothing else to be done, Smyth grabbed a Thompson gun that had been left on a table – which says much about how quickly the place was abandoned – and went out, into the yard at the back. There he found Danny Gallagher (the man he had been with when narrowly avoiding a sniper’s aim) and twenty others, all huddled behind a hedge. So intense was the enemy fusillade that the one Volunteer with a weapon to match, a Lewis gun, did not dare risk exposing himself to use it (though Smyth gave a few return shots with his newly claimed Thompson). Retreat being the only sane option, the band crawled away, singly or in pairs, along the hedge.

When they judged themselves to be sufficiently far away, the Volunteers quickened their pace, finally breaking cover to dash across a bare patch of land. An artillery shell chose that moment to land beside them, splattering Smyth and the rest with mud but miraculously leaving them unscathed. The fleeing Irishmen were able to continue on and escape, making their way to Donegal town with nothing but the clothes on their backs. About fifty-five or sixty-five others arrived with Smyth, only half the number that had held Pettigo.[19]

At least no pursuit was made, for there was still one more nail for the Crown forces to hammer down. “I understand that the advance will be continued to-morrow towards Belleek,” wrote the journalist on the scene for the Irish Times.[20]

Newsreel from Topical Budget depicting the capture of Belleek by British troops, available from the Irish Film Institute (IFI) Archive Player:

By Thursday, the 8th June, the Fermanagh village in question was too under British control, courtesy of the one hundred and fifty soldiers from the Manchester Regiment and the Lincolnshire Regiment’s three companies, which had advanced on Belleek from the south and north respectively.  As with Pettigo, resistance was offered by rifle and Thompson gunshots, some of which came from an old Williamite fort on a hill overlooking Belleek.

belleek-fortAnd, as with Pettigo, artillery made all the difference:

There was a “boom” of a big gun, and the ground shook. A cloud of dust rose from the back of the fort, and the Republicans were seen scattering in all directions. Three more high explosive shells were fired, and every one of them registered a hit, landing within the walls of the fort.

As the garrison was from anti-Treaty IRA and thus unambiguously hostile, and that Belleek lay on the Northern Irish side of the Border, the village made for a much more straightforward mission than Free State-held Pettigo in Donegal (tellingly, when Collins later complained of the British attack against Pettigo, he ignored the one on Belleek). The exchange of bullets and shells had begun at 12:45; three-quarters of an hour later, the Anti-Treatyites were reported to be in retreat. Save for a slight injury, no casualties among the British were suffered, nor any bodies found in Belleek, making it as close to a bloodless battle as could be hoped.[21]

At 10 Downing Street, London, news of the victory and its swiftness was celebrated by the Prime Minister and his inner circle with a bottle of champagne and the singing of songs until past midnight. Relief rather than triumphalism was the order of the day, for the last thing David Lloyd George had wanted was to be “fighting in the swamps of Lough Erne,” as he told Churchill.[22]

British troops
‘Lads who took the town”- victorious Tommies pose in Belleek with a captured tricolour flag: (1:40)

Overwhelming Force

It had been a brave holdout but, in Smyth’s resigned view, “the forces which the British used against our men in the last stages of the fight in Pettigo were so overwhelming that we couldn’t stem the tide.” If nothing could have averted the outcome, then one thing Smyth did regret was the death of Patrick Flood. Flood had stayed behind for some overdue sleep when Smyth left for Waterfoot, being too tired to do anything else. He later died elsewhere at Drumharriff Hill, haunting Smyth for years afterwards with the possibility of Flood surviving had they only stayed together.[23]

1b534e4b-921b-4654-ad4b-d0d2188269e0Four were reported dead altogether: three of the Pettigo defenders, unnamed and otherwise unremarked, and Special Constable Dobson, whose death had previously been reported. Post-victory, it received more elaboration in the Irish Times: despite being shot in the head, the dying Dobson had managed to apply the brakes of his Lancia car and bring it to a halt by the roadside, rather than getting in the way of the other vehicles and rendering them easy targets.[24]

A contradictory version came from John Travers. Like Smyth, Travers was contributing a statement to the Bureau of Military History, three decades after the event, in July 1952 (four other participants, including Smyth and James Scollan, put their names at the end, indicating that the document was a group effort). According to Travers and company, after Dobson was downed, “the car overturned and blocked the road. Fire from the Volunteers prevented them from clearing the way for some time.”[25]

British armored cars
British armoured cars: (00.25)

Travers also contributed the closest account posterity has for the final moments of the three fallen defenders:

The machine gun post of about eight IRA Volunteers which manned Drumharriff Hill covering the approach to the town [Pettigo], held their position until their ammunition was exhausted and then the post was surround [sic] and captured. Three of the gallant defenders, Patrick Flood of Pettigo, Bernard McCanny and William Kearney of Drumquin, were killed at their post.[26]

Neither Travers nor any of his five contributors seem to have been eyewitnesses to this last stand and so little more than the bare facts above can be provided. The Monday after the fight, Father Bernard Hackett was to find Flood’s body in the field where he fell and removed it to the Catholic church in Pettigo. The top of Flood’s head was missing, torn off by what the padre guessed to have been an artillery shell.[27]

British artillery, having just fired (note the smoke to the right): (00:57)

And Flood’s condition was not the worst, for he at least was recognisable. Part of why McCanny and Kearney were not immediately identified was “principally owing to their mutilated condition,” according to the report by Lieutenant McDonnell. In addition to the three dead, McDonnell estimated eighteen further casualties to the Free State, these being prisoners who had been removed to Enniskillen.[28]

A fourth name on the memorial to the Irish dead in Pettigo is William Deasley ‘who died of wounds 6-6-1922’. According to historian Liam Ó Duibhir, these injuries were not from the actual battle but afterwards in Donegal town as a result of an accident. And then there had been the blood spilt at the very start, that of the Lancia car driver who had been shot on the 28th May while crossing with a police convoy into the Free State: Special Constable Herbert Thomas Rickerby, a Belfast man (given the similarity between his death and Dobson’s, the driver’s seat in a military vehicle must have been an exceptionally dangerous place to be).[29]

Memorial to the battle in Pettigo, Co. Donegal

Numbers are a notoriously difficult science for the military researcher, given the tendency of primary sources to inflate them; for example, Michael O’Donoghue believed that fifteen Free State soldiers altogether had been slain by the shelling of Pettigo. But, when all is said and counted, five (six if you count the latecomer Deasley) is the most reasonable tally of the butcher’s bill.[30]

An Army Once Again?

Though not present in either Pettigo or Belleek, Michael O’Donoghue was in Donegal, one of the Corkonians sent to assist the anti-Treaty IRA there, and so can provide a man-on-the-ground view of how the situation was perceived. The initial reaction for O’Donoghue and his comrades in Donegal town was dread: if the British advanced westwards along the Erne River to Ballyshannon, they could cut the Anti-Treatyites off from the rest of ‘Southern’ Ireland.

British soldiers marching through the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle, June 1922

However, that looming cloud promised a silver lining, in O’Donoghue’s view:

Had they done so, the whole subsequent history of Ireland would assuredly have been changed, for a unified Irish Republican Army would have waged renewed war on the British in Ulster and prevented the setting up of the Six County statelet.[31]

For if the valiant, albeit ill-fated, defence of Pettigo and Belleek had demonstrated anything, it was how:

At last the sundered wings of the IRA – the Free Staters and the Republicans – were fighting side by side as comrades again here in Ulster against the common English enemy. Now the Irish Republican Army had closed its ranks and were re-united once more.[32]

Brian Monaghan, who had been in the battle, thought much the same:

This incident seemed to heal the division in the ranks of the former IRA as both the treaty supporters at Pettigo and the anti-Treaty supporters at Belleek took a hand at actively opposing the advance of the British Forces.

But it was not to be:

Unfortunately this temporary feeling of old-time unity disappeared as soon as the military operations against the British forces came to an end.[33]

Disappointedly, and “strange to say, the British stayed put in Belleek and Pettigo and made no further move,” O’Donoghue lamented. Despite the Pettigo-Belleek clash being exactly the sort of reaction Liam Lynch had hoped to provoke when undertaking the ‘Army of the North’, the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal were caught off-guard as much as anyone. But, when reviewing events years later, O’Donoghue preferred to blame external forces rather than his own side’s failure to capitalise on their gift-wrapped opportunity:

Michael Collins was called to London to explain the warlike activities of the Free State army in Ulster. What transpired between himself and Churchill there will hardly ever be fully revealed.[34]

An Unbridgeable Gulf?

What went on behind closed doors was not quite as cloak-and-dagger as O’Donoghue tried to make out – contrary to his insinuation, we have quite a lot of material about Collins’ interactions with the British state – but the clash of arms on the Donegal-Fermanagh frontier did expose just how far the two governments were at an understanding. Collins and Arthur Griffith were not even aware that the fighting had broken out until informed about it in a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on the 31st May. Worse, neither Irish Cabinet minister knew if it were the Anti-Treatyites who were involved or their own forces. Collins repudiated any Free State involvement – erroneously, as he later learnt – to Churchill, who was in turn downplaying the whole affair as much as he could to Parliament.[35]

Thomas Jones

Both men were feeling the strain. Thomas Jones, a civil servant with a front-row seat to many of the Anglo-Irish deliberations, had had a testy conversation at Chequers with a frazzled Churchill, who wanted to send in the military to the Pettigo-Belleek Triangle without first warning their partners in the Free State. When Jones cautioned him against impulsivity, Churchill threatened to resign and leave the Prime Minister to carry the load (Lloyd George, when he heard, compared his Colonial Secretary to an unstable chauffeur who was liable to drive everyone off a cliff without warning).[36]

Collins likewise yearned to cast off responsibility. The first thing he had told Jones at one encounter in late May was: “This gulf is unbridgeable.” Going back to war, with his comrades at his side once again, did not seem like such a bad thing, he hinted to Jones. But this was more of a case of Collins venting than seriously considering. His immediate demand was for jaw-jaw rather than war-war; when asked by an American journalist if he would insist on an official enquiry into the Pettigo-Belleek affair, Collins was emphatic: “Most certainly.”[37]

Michael Collins, looking like a man with a lot on his mind

He calmed down somewhat after a talk with Sir Laming Worthington-Evans, the Secretary of War, and Lord Cavan, Chief of the General Staff, in mid-June. As he told Richard Mulcahy in a letter:

I am satisfied that there is a very serious conflict of evidence and I am not satisfied that either side can be accepted as being correct.

What Collins had heard was apparently enough to persuade him that enough blame was there to go around: “I was pressing my demand for an enquiry but eased off somewhat after certain passages of the British report had been read out to me.” Any secret deal struck with Liam Lynch belonged to a different age, assuming anything of the sort had really existed. As for Churchill, when asked in Parliament, the Colonial Secretary confirmed that no such enquiry would be necessary as his government accepted “full responsibility for the action which the military authorities took by their express direction.”[38]

Cooler heads, it seemed, were prevailing. It was not the end of the Irish Question for Britain, nor the Border issue for Ireland, but the attentions of both countries did not linger long on either Pettigo or Belleek. British, Free Stater and Republicans turned to bigger priorities, and soon to bigger battles, and the one that had flared up on the Donegal-Fermanagh border so suddenly faded away just as swiftly.

Memorial to the battle in Pettigo


[1] Irish Times, 30/05/1922

[2] Ibid, 05/06/1922

[3] Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924]), p. 649

[4] Ibid, pp. 631-2, 645, 656

[5] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 268-9

[6] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238

[7] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), pp. 203-4

[8] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 251

[9] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 205

[10] Ibid, p. 63

[11] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam and Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk to Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), pp. 33-5

[12] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[13] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 97

[14] Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018), p. 129

[15] Irish Times, 06/06/1922

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, ‘Kearney, William’ (W2/11378), p. 18

[17] Names and addresses supplied by Travers, John (BMH / WS 711), p. 7 ; Irish Times, 07/06/1922

[18] Kearney, pp. 3, 11

[19] Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 24-31

[20] Irish Times, 05/06/1922

[21] Ibid, 09/06/1922

[22] Jones, Thomas (edited by Middlemas, Keith) Whitehall Diary: Volume III, Ireland 1918-1925 (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 211-2

[23] Smyth, pp. 29, 31

[24] Irish Times, 05/06/1922

[25] Travers, p. 6

[26] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[27] Flood, Patrick, W2D221, pp. 111-2

[28] Kearney, p. 3

[29] Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), p. 128 ; Belfast Newsletter, 31/05/1922

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

[31] Ibid, p. 97

[32] Ibid, p. 95

[33] Monaghan, Brian (BMH / WS 879), p. 13

[34] O’Donoghue, p. 97

[35] Downing, p. 124

[36] Jones, pp. 210, 212

[37] Ibid, p. 203 ; Downing, p. 136

[38] Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997), p. 352 ; Irish Times, 15/06/1922



Belfast Newsletter

Derry Journal

Irish Times


Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Downing, Dan. Neighbours in Pettigo: Living with Conflict and Division in a Border Village (Co. Donegal: Pettigo Publishing, 2018)

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

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

Macready, Nevil. Annals of an Active Life, Vol. 2 (London: Hutchinson and Co. [1924])

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954)

Ó Duibhir, Liam. Donegal and the Civil War: The Untold Story (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

Military Service Pensions Collection

Flood, Patrick, W2D221

Kearney, William, W2/11378

Bureau of Military History Statements

Monaghan, Brian, WS 879

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721

Travers, John, WS 711


Kinsella, Anthony, ‘The Pettigo-Belleek Triangle Incident. Irish Sword (Dublin: The Military History Society of Ireland, Volume XX, No. 2, Winter 1997)


Béal na Rashomon: Liam Deasy and His Multiple-Choice History of the Irish Revolution, 1920-74

“If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!”

Moore, Alan and Bolland, Brian. The Killing Joke (1988)

‘For the Future of Ireland’

Liam Deasy

That a man was taken prisoner by Free State forces in Tincurry, Co. Tipperary, on the 18th January 1923, was nothing remarkable in itself, what with the Civil War being on; what was noteworthy, however, was the POW’s identity and importance: Liam Deasy, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). As a parabellum revolver and twenty-one rounds of ammunition had been found on him, a court-martial was convened a week later, sentencing Deasy to death, as per Government law against possession of unauthorised firearms, a decree aimed specifically at anti-Treaty IRA combatants or ‘Irregulars’ like him.

And that would have been the end of him, another name on a growing list of Republican martyrs, except Deasy was not quite ready to join it. Upon his request for an interview with the enemy Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – “for the future of Ireland,” Deasy was quoted as saying – the captive was transferred to Dublin, where, after further discussion, it was agreed for him to put his name to a communique announcing to the country:

I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –

I accept, and I will aid in immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as required by General Mulcahy.

(Signed) LIAM DEASY[1]

Ernie O’Malley

This volte-face was met with shock and dismay from his colleagues. While sympathising with Deasy and his plight, Ernie O’Malley could not help but rail at the “rank indiscipline of it” in a letter to a friend, Sheila Humphreys, from Mountjoy Prison. It was not as if O’Malley could not relate, being a POW and under threat of execution himself, but he failed “to see what right prisoners have to attempt to force the hands of their comrades in the field; we are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” Furthermore, there was the bigger picture to consider: what impact would news of Deasy’s submission have on the rest of the IRA?[2]

Almost a fortnight later, O’Malley would write again to Humphreys, announcing himself to be in a better mood, confident that the rank-and-file would remain true and stay the course. Nonetheless, the crack in the Republican lines made by Deasy was starting to widen: A signed statement from twelve POWs held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to discuss with IRA senior officers still at large about a possible end to hostilities.[3]

Although no reference was made to Deasy, the timing seems too close to be entirely coincidental. Seventy detainees in Tralee, Co. Kerry, went even further in their own proclamation, not only citing Deasy by name but urging the remaining Anti-Treatyites to go beyond just considering peace:

We, the undersigned prisoners in Tralee Prison, approve of Liam Deasy’s actions in calling on his comrades for unconditional surrender, and we request a parole for delegates to interview our comrades in arms to advise them to surrender.

Some of these comrades-in-arms were no longer waiting to be advised. Eager to capitalise on its success in turning a high-ranking opponent into its mouthpiece, the Government had offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty to enemy combatants on condition that they surrender their weapons between the 8th and 18th February. Sixteen men were reported to have done so accordingly to Free State troops at Innistioge, Co. Kilkenny, with almost a dozen more in Limerick declaring by telegram their intention to hand in their arms. Slightly more complicated was the case of Michael Pierce, who stated his willingness to surrender the two flying columns he commanded in North Kerry, but also his uncertainty as to whether he could contact each of his subordinates in time. The amnesty deadline was extended by two days to accommodate him.[4]

IRA Flying Column

And then there were those prisoners, tried and convicted on a capital offence but willing, like Deasy, to sign declarations renouncing further hostilities on their part in return for a reprieve. By April, the number of these signatories was enough to sicken O’Malley, especially when he thought “of the gallant lads of 17 and 19 who faced death with such courage” in comparison. Adding further indignity, a visiting chaplain suggested that he follow Deasy’s example and publicly submit. O’Malley managed to keep himself composed until the padre had left and then vented his rage and frustration in the privacy of his cell.[5]

The Final Advance to Victory

And yet, as Deasy stressed in an accompanying letter, his call for surrender was not based on any change of heart, nor were his ideals as a Republican any different now than they had been at the start of the Civil War. Neither was it from a fear of defeat, since the Anti-Treatyites, in his opinion, could sustain their military campaign for years – and yet at what cost?

Our military position had not materially changed – if anything, it was stronger than at any time, sufficiently strong to prevent the Free State Government from functioning. Briefly both sides had ample strength to carry on for an indefinite period, the end of which would probably see no change on the respective position, but, undoubtedly would show a considerable weakening nationally.

With this unhappy situation before them, Republicans had to choose whether it would be better for their country and its freedom to:

  1. Halt at this stage and prepare to fight the common foe again at the first opportunity.
  2. To continue on as before, maybe for years, and leave only irreconcilable bitterness by the end.

Neither was ideal, Deasy admitted. The former option would “see the attempted reinforcing of Britain’s grip, not of course, as formerly; but even veiled, her influence in part will remain.” In the case of the latter, however, the aforementioned ‘common foe’ might not even bother with any veil if further hardship for Ireland led to “a cordial welcome by a section of our people to the return of England’s ‘protective forces’” and armed occupation all over again.

Anti-Treaty newsletter and cartoon

So Deasy was not quite appealing for peace as much as he was for breathing space before Round Two with Britain. Regardless of his current course of action, which he admitted “may appear inconsistent” to his stated views, he was at pains to present himself as a man, if not quite unembittered, then at least unbroken and most certainly unrepentant. The coarsening of the conflict, “retrograding from the path of warfare to that of a vendetta”, he blamed solely on the Free State in its execution of POWs; any harsh measures on the part of the IRA were purely a response to the enemy’s “policy of murder.”

Execution by firing-squad during the Civil War (presmably staged)

The times had been harsh, and they would grow harsher, but Deasy, concluding his letter on an incongruously triumphant note, was confident that:

To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.[6]

Quite different, then, was the tone and text of the letter when printed in Deasy’s Civil War memoirs, Brother Against Brother, more than fifty years later:

My comrades when they view the whole outlook nationally, they will see the absolute urgency of bringing the present chapter to a close: if we conserve our forces the spirit of Ireland is saved. Our advance may be greatly impeded for a time but the freedom we desire will be achieved by, we hope, our united efforts again.[7]

Here, the letter is less defiant and more muted, even melancholic (the book’s title alone being indicative of its sadder-but-wiser author). No mention was made of wanting to wait for another war, only in ending the current one, which Deasy, unlike earlier, was willing to concede was being lost. That the IRA would last beyond the summer of 1923 was something he doubted, considering the setbacks the Republicans were already struggling with, as Deasy unflinchingly listed:

  1. The increasing strength of the Free State army from recruitment.
  2. The decrease in IRA strength due to constant arrests.
  3. The defensive stance of IRA units in many areas and the decrease in fighting.
  4. ‘War Weariness’ in general.
  5. The failure to combat enemy propaganda leading to increased support for the Free State Government.
  6. The overall situation created by executions, leading to a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals.[8]

That his side might at least be partly responsible for the mess everyone was in had been more than Deasy was willing to openly discuss at the time.

A train derailed during the Irish Civil War

Intellectual Convictions?

Whether he was deliberately rewriting his words or honestly misremembering is another question and, while we can never know for sure, not everyone who knew him was always impressed at his truthfulness. As Tom Barry told historian Pádraig Ó Maidin in 1976, when  he last saw Deasy before his capture, a few days earlier in the Glen of Aherlow, the other had said not a word about ending the war, nor had he to any of the other IRA Executive members, as each confirmed when next they met as a body.[9]

Deasy himself had sounded almost chipper in a letter for O’Malley, as Deputy IRA Chief of Staff to the latter’s Acting Assistant Chief of Staff. “Generally, the position here is very satisfactory, particularly in the Cork and Kerry Brigades,” he wrote. “The people generally are becoming very favourable.” While Deasy did make mention of peace overtures, these were from the other side, by Free State officers such as Tom Ennis and Emmet Dalton. Deasy offered no comment, good or bad, on them, but his description of tactics being developed by the IRA against enemy-held towns and their satisfying results so far do not give the impression of a man yearning for peace, contrary to what he later claimed to have been.[10]

IRA members on Grafton Street, Dublin

In fairness, Deasy was writing in September 1922, before the situation turned truly dire for the Republicans, and Barry’s relationship with Deasy had plummeted by the time he talked to Ó Maidin (as we shall see). Others were more willing to see the best in Deasy, even if they had been on the opposing side.

“Deasy is the kind of person who wouldn’t be actuated by malice,” Lieutenant-General Costello told Richard Mulcahy as part of an interview the latter was conducting in May 1963. Such amiability only made the subject’s past behaviour all the more puzzling to Costello:

I can’t place Deasy’s opposition to the Treaty at all because he had no intellectual convictions against us; he certainly was not in favour of a civil war.

“I have never been able to understand what influenced him,” Costello concluded with a sigh.[11]

Liam Mellows

Deasy might not have disagreed on some of the above points. Back then, he had been among the cooler heads or ‘moderates’ on the IRA Executive, formed in the wake of the Treaty rift to take charge of the Republican forces. Perhaps he and his like-minded colleagues had been a little too reasonable for their own good; according to Deasy, a willingness to negotiate with their Free State counterparts, in the months leading up to the Civil War in 1922, had earned them the derision of hardliners like Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows, who:

…could see no good in Michael Collins, Dick Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy. This distrust extended to Liam Lynch, Florence O’Donoghue, Frank Barrett and myself. We were regarded as being well intended but failing in our stand to maintain the Republic.

To Deasy, this was deeply unfair: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was considered and meaningful.”[12]

A Well-Informed Man

At least some thought Deasy worth listening to. Todd Andrews had talked with him and a number of other West Cork IRA bigwigs, finding them to be:

…particularly well informed men with a deep knowledge of Irish history. Physically they were distinguished looking men…They had the quality of leadership. They were the kind of men I wished to see at the head of affairs in Ireland.[13]

Seán MacBride

Which came closer than Andrews knew of happening…until divisions within the IRA Executive proved as irreconcilable as the schism between the pro and anti-Treaty camps. At the disastrous IRA Convention of June 1922, the ‘hardliners’ stormed out of the gathering in protest at the proposal to heal the IRA breach with a reunited army. Seán MacBride, as a witness, identified Deasy, along with Liam Lynch, as among the movers behind this olive-branch.

Not that Deasy did not have a vested interest. Had a reformed Army come to pass, Deasy would have been poised to help shape future developments as joint Deputy Chief of Staff, with responsibility for General Training. But, since unity also meant “that the Republican Army be united and controlled by the Free State Army” – as MacBride put it – “in other words this meant they were ready to work the Treaty and thereby signify their acceptance of it,” it was little short of abject surrender in the eyes of Mellows and O’Connor. They much preferred the counter-suggestion by Tom Barry: that the Anti-Treatyites just restart the war with Britain then and there.[14]

Liam Lynch

Neither the hardliners nor moderates had their way, and the result was Deasy and Lynch waking up together in the Clarence Hotel, Dublin, on the 28th June 1922, to the sound of Free State artillery pounding away at Republican positions. Both were too shocked to react or speak at first, sitting dumbfounded in their room before finally making their way outside to where civil war awaited. If Costello would struggle to understand what influenced Deasy, then perhaps the answer was nothing did, and that he was as swept up in events beyond his control as anyone.[15]

Whether this makes him sympathetic or contemptible is another matter. “It is my personal [emphasis in text] opinion that Liam Lynch and Liam Deasy were simply not up it,” Tom Kelleher later said about their performance. But neither, he conceded, was anyone else who was in charge.[16]

Gunmen taking aim during the Civil War

Béal na Bláth – Take 1

All of which still leaves the discrepancy between the letter Deasy wrote in 1923 and what he presented in Brother Against Brother. To put things in context, however, the book was published posthumously, after his death in August 1974, while still in its first draft stage and it is possible his revisions would have been closer to the original had he the chance.[17]

Florence O’Donoghue

Less easily explained are the differences between his depiction in Brother Against Brother of the ambush at Béal na Bláth in August 1922 that resulted in the slaying of Michael Collins – and that of another version, composed a decade before Deasy’s. What makes the latter particularly noteworthy is that Deasy had a hand in its making as well, being one of the seven men who met at the Metropole Hotel in Cork in February 1964. All were former officers in the Cork IRA and each had participated at Béal na Bláth on that fateful day, save Florence O’Donoghue, whose role in the group was as its secretary.

The reason for their reunion, as explained by O’Donoghue at the start of the resultant piece:

I was asked to be present to record what could be established as the truth and because I had been given an undertaking by Capt. Sean Feehan of the Mercier press that he would not publish Eoin Neeson’s book on the Civil War until we were satisfied that the part of it dealing with the death of Collins was in accordance with the facts.[18]

Few deaths have merited as much introspection as Collins’: the war hero cut down by a bullet after falling into a trap laid by his compatriots and leaving behind the eternal question of what he would or could have done further for Ireland had he lived. That he was a fellow Corkonian only rubbed further salt into the wounded pride of his ambushers, in “a sense of collective guilt from the death of Collins” as observed by Todd Andrews of his Cork colleagues in the IRA, and perhaps demonstrable in Tom Barry’s indignation at “the canard that the IRA plotted and planned Collins’ death in 1922 and in fact assassinated him.” The IRA party responsible did not even know Collins – “a great son of West Cork” – was in the convoy at the time, Barry insisted.[19]

Michael Collins

O’Donoghue did not attempt that particular argument but the same touchiness that Barry showed and Andrews observed can be detected in the work the seven men produced in the Metropole, even with the passing of forty-two years:

Statements which have been made to the effect that the Division and Cork No. 1 Brigade were aware of Collins’ intention to visit posts in Cork and that a general order was issued to kill him are without foundation and completely untrue. His presence in the South was known to the officers in the Division and of the 1st and 3rd Brigades only on the morning of 22nd and no order had been issued by either of the commands. The ambush was decided on as part of the general policy of attacking Free State convoys.

In short: nothing personal. It was presumably to pre-empt any further statements ‘without foundation’ that might be found in historian Eoin Neeson’s book that the seven men had had their reunion. The Metropole Hotel document, the fruit of their collective recollections, is relatively short, focusing on the bare facts, at least as presented: the four officers in the Third Cork IRA Brigade who gathered at Béal na Bláth on the forenoon of the 22nd August did so for the purpose of a routine brigade meeting. Although a Free State convoy had been spotted passing through the area on the previous night, that was not the intended subject of discussion, nor did it become so until late in the meeting, by which point the ambush party was already in place at Béal na Bláth in anticipation of the convoy returning by the same route. No instructions had given for them to do so, it seems, beyond the aforementioned policy of attacking the enemy whenever opportunity presented itself.

Last known photograph of Collins, about to leave Bandon for Cork, through Béal na Bláth, on the 22nd August 1922

The four officers – unspecified in the account – only came later on the scene to take command. The group, numbering between twenty and twenty-five, waited until deciding that the target was probably not going to appear. As the main section withdrew on foot, a rear-guard of ten lingered to clear the road, and while doing so they heard the sound of imminent vehicles: the convoy was coming after all:

They realised that the main party moving back towards [Béal na Bláth] cross-roads were in a ravine and in a very dangerous position. They could not have reached the cross-roads before the convoy overtook them.

To prevent this calamity, the rear-guard hurriedly took up position on the roadside and opened fire with rifles and revolvers on the incoming Free Staters. The two sides exchanged shots for twenty or thirty minutes before nightfall made further exertions impractical and the convoy broke away. The IRA suffered no losses and it was only later that they learnt the enemy had had one: Collins.

Should any doubt be left in the readers’ minds as to intent: “Conditions were such that it was not possible to get off an aimed shot.”

Portrait of Collins’ death, by W.S. Rogers

It should be noted that while the story of Béal na Bláth has been told by other sources, only in this one is the depiction of the ambush as self-defence to be found. Leadership on the scene seems to have been collective, with no one officer having the final say (and thus bearing the most responsibility). Although not the focus of the text, Deasy did merit a couple of mentions: that the decision to evacuate the ambush site had probably been his, and that when he had arrived at Béal na Bláth on the morning of the 22nd, it had been in the company of Éamon de Valera.[20]

Béal na Bláth – Take 2

Éamon de Valera

On that last point, Deasy’s memoir was in accordance. The two leaders, the soldier and the politician, had met before in Garranereagh, Co. Kerry, where they talked about peace and its desirability, a subject close to de Valera’s heart, as it would be for Deasy’s as well. The latter was to claim that, even then, he agreed with de Valera’s assertion that, with the war dragging on, it was time to gracefully withdraw, except Deasy knew the IRA was still too confident to countenance anything short of victory.

The pair left the next morning, the 22nd August, for Béal na Bláth, arriving in time to learn of that Collins had been sighted in his convoy. To de Valera’s question as to what would happen next, Deasy shared his guess that:

The men billed in this area…would consider this incursion into the area which was so predominantly Republican…as a challenge which they could not refuse to meet. I felt that an ambush would be prepared in case the convoy returned. De Valera then remarked that it would be a great pity if Collins were killed because he might be succeeded by a weaker man.

This is certainly more intimate information than offered in the 1964 Metropole document, though the two match in depicting the IRA unit responsible as fully capable of acting on their own initiative. Deasy’s book gives no clue as to his opinion at the time, nor of any effort on his part in encouraging or discouraging an attack on a high-ranking enemy general. The assumption that events were already in motion was apparently sufficient for him to return to Garranereagh, where he “attended to many urgent matters and weighed up the new situation in which we found ourselves” for the better part of the day.

We can assume from this that Deasy was not one of the four officers who met at Béal na Bláth while the ambush was being laid; indeed, he was at pains to distance himself from any such quartet, even complaining at how:

One writer states the four anti-Treaty officers, including Seán Lehane and myself, stayed at Joe Sullivan’s the night before the ambush…That is simply not true.

Tom Hales

Deasy is unclear as to whether such a meeting did not happen at all or just that he was not present. Only after his business in Garranereagh was done did Deasy travel again to Béal na Bláth. He arrived in time to find the would-be-ambushers in the process of withdrawing due to the likelihood of Collins taking a different route – much as in the 1964 account. Except that, in the earlier version, the decision to withdraw was probably made by Deasy (though it is not definite); furthermore, Deasy is listed as one of the ambush party. In Brother Against Brother, the withdrawal order was Tom Hales’, before Deasy had even arrived, with Deasy no more than a latecomer.

The point is explicitly made in the 1964 account that the ambush was triggered by the need of the rear-guard party to cover the rest from being overtaken by the sudden arrival of the convoy. However, according to Deasy, most of the team were already in a pub for ten minutes when they heard the first shots from the skirmish and dashed back in time to let off a few shots of their own before the convoy retreated. While the Metropole Hotel document seeks to distance the ambushers from their own ambush by means of self-defence, Deasy goes one further and places himself as barely on the scene at all. Deasy also contradicts the 1964 account’s insistence that the main party were exposed in a ravine and in danger of being cornered; according to him, they had already spent some minutes inside before the firing began.

Site of the ambush at Béal na Bláth

As the 1964 report was written by a committee of seven, it is impossible to know how much input Deasy had. Another question is whether he was purposely going against the earlier source for his own evasive benefit, was honestly remembering events differently than he had a decade earlier or had wanted to include his two cents from the start but been overruled by the six others in the Metropole. There are many overlaps in narrative between the two statements but also are significant differences in Deasy’s sole version and these were seemingly part of a similar desire to distance the subject from the same embarrassing event that had motivated the earlier account.

Michael Collins Monument at Béal na Bláth, Co. Cork

Deasy himself acknowledged the awkwardness of association with Ireland’s most infamous assassination (or war casualty if one prefers) when he spoke of how “a lot has been written about this ambush at Béal na Bláth by Irishmen who dramatised the action out of all proportion. Strangers also did not help in what they wrote, many of whom caused much pain.”[21]

Old Friends

Deasy bookAnother ambush that stirred post hoc controversy was Kilmichael on the 28th November 1920, when a force of eighteen Auxiliaries was nearly annihilated by the flying column of the West Cork IRA Brigade. Deasy was on familiar terms with the column and its commander, Tom Barry, accompanying it when not called away on staff work as Brigade Adjutant. It was while performing such duties in Crossbarry that Deasy missed the ambush, though he was able to use the testimony of one participant, Paddy O’Brien, in his narrative of the War of Independence, Towards Ireland Free.[22]

Published in mid-1973, the autobiography was considered provocative enough by Barry to write to the national newspapers about how:

Frankly, when I first glanced through the book I was puzzled at some of Deasy’s statements, but later I was angered at his presentation of events and his alleged informants. The omissions, of great importance were so vital to a true picture of what occurred that it was hard to understand.

While “individuals are all praised fulsomely and excessively,” Barry nonetheless saw cause to take the depiction of himself very personally:

A picture is given which denigrates the Flying Column, and if true, must show the Column Commander as a moron, incapable of commanding a single sniper, not to mention a flying column.[23]

It would appear, as one historian puts it, that “many of the tensions that had existed between the Brigade leadership since the War of Independence” had been brought to the surface.[24]

524796223.0.mThat assumes, of course, that these feelings had been bubbling away all this time. Yet the evidence otherwise suggests that, until Towards Ireland Free, the two men had been on good terms. After all, Deasy praised Barry lavishly in his memoir, as had Barry with Deasy in his own, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, printed twenty-four years earlier in 1949. Which was hardly surprising, given how extensively the pair worked together in the West Cork Brigade. Barry had found Deasy to be “a tower of strength” and not only “the best Brigade Adjutant in Ireland” but “one of the best Brigade O/Cs” when promoted to that position. For Deasy’s part, he extolled Barry’s “enthusiasm and dynamism that were astonishing”, combined with “a remarkable grasp of military psychology” and culminating in “something greater still: he was a leader of unsurpassed bravery.”[25]

All this was not just nostalgia on either man’s part. When Deasy, shortly after his release from prison in 1924, found himself accused of cowardice and treason by his IRA peers – who had not forgotten or forgiven his call for them to surrender – he chose Barry to defend him. It was a bold move, considering Barry had been only too eager the year before to let his own disgust be known. “We got a letter from Barry repudiating Deasy,” according to one contemporary, Charlie Browne, while another, Ted Sullivan, remembered Barry calling “2 or 3 meetings of the [1st Southern] divisional Council to condemn Deasy for he hated Deasy like hell.”[26]

Tom Barry

‘Hated’ might be too strong a word, for at the court-martial in Dublin, January 1925, with Deasy’s life on the line, Barry argued for clemency, saying that enough blood had been spilled already. The appeal was not enough to stop Deasy being sentenced to death but Barry’s warning that anyone touching as much as a hair on the condemned man’s head would answer to him was enough for the verdict to be commuted to dismissal with ignominy from the IRA. Regardless of the disgrace, Deasy’s life had been saved, and the two comrades would keep in touch throughout the years, often meeting at funerals, commemorations and other social occurrences.[27]

51vzvt35mll._ac_sy780_Barry’s public vitriol at Deasy’s perceived slight was thus very personal, the anger of a betrayed friendship, and that feeling spilled out into the booklet he published as a sequel to his letter to the media. Titled The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-1921 in West Cork, with the pointed subtitle Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free, the work went beyond the professional – one historical record set against another – to the personal with such spitefully worded phrases as ‘This disposes of one part of Deasy’s fairy tale’, ‘Deasy’s other hysterical statements’, ‘Deasy had the impertinence’ and ‘Deasy’s final chapter is equally incorrect’.[28]

‘Refutations, Corrections and Comments’

Given the mutual appreciation previously demonstrated by the two men, the reason for such a strong reaction on Barry’s part might not have been immediately obvious to readers. But, for Barry, it was the principle of the thing:

Deasy’s presentation of the engagement at Kilmichael and the training camp immediately prior to it, is another extraordinary portrayal of history. The training camp would appear to be like a scene from ‘Dad’s Army’ whilst the fight could be summed up as a galaxy of names and “we waited, Auxies came, we shooted and all dead.”

Barry knew O’Brien well enough to consider him a life-long friend. He never got the chance to ask O’Brien about what he told Deasy, for the other man had by then passed away. And so Barry could only:

…hope that Paddy and his family will understand. I have no alternative but to tear asunder Deasy’s published account of the fight itself, where the camp appears to be a joke and the fight one where no false surrender by the Auxiliaries occurred.

Michael McCarthy

There were various points addressed by Barry: O’Brien claimed to have taken over training while Barry was absent, a responsibility Barry said would have fallen instead to Michael McCarthy as Vice-Commandant; to O’Brien’s description of the column being divided into two for the ambush, Barry maintained that the unit marched to the site in three sections, one of which was halved in turn; O’Brien has Barry stepping onto the road after the driver of the first enemy lorry was killed in order to throw a Mills bomb into the back of the vehicle, an action which would have got the man in question shot by the other passengers, Barry retorted.

Much of these two differences can be attributed to the usual flaws and bedevilments in human memory. But, on the matter of the ‘false surrender’ that Barry referred to at the start, reconciliation is a lot harder. After the initial outburst of rifle-fire and explosives had wiped out the Auxiliaries on the first lorry, those on the second called out to surrender, causing – or luring – some of the column members to break cover and be shot down, including McCarthy. From then, the surviving IRA men were ordered to keep on firing until the rest of their enemies were safely dead.

Unfortunate, perhaps, but, in light of Irish clemency being so sorely abused, understandable – at least, that is how Barry told it.

Wreckage after the Kilmichael Ambush

O’Brien’s – and, by extension, Deasy’s – dog is one that did not bark in the night. Nowhere is any surrender, false or otherwise, mentioned, not even in passing, with the slaughter of the Auxiliaries presented as an act that was both remorseless and inevitable: “We then opened fire from their rear [of the second lorry] and they knew they were doomed.” This, Barry protested, presented him “as a blood-thirsty commander – who exterminated the Auxiliaries without reason” – which, hurtful enough as it was, slandered not only him but also “all the men who fought under my command in the Kilmichael victory.”[29]

Neither O’Brien nor Deasy had the chance to respond, for O’Brien was dead by the time of Barry’s booklet, as was – though Barry did not then know it – Deasy, who died on the 20th August 1974. Anvil Books Ltd, as publisher, felt obliged to point out in its preface that it was not aware of Deasy’s waning health until after receiving Barry’s manuscript and had only been given the final page-proofs the day before Deasy expired.[30]

Nonetheless, the idea that a man was being kicked on his deathbed left a sour taste in the mouths of some, enough for Barry to publicly lament such a “despicable suggestion by one signatory.” For Barry’s was not the final word on the whole cause célébre. With Deasy not present to defend himself, fourteen other survivors of the West Cork IRA Brigade put their names to “a statement dissociating themselves from the contents of a booklet published recently by General Tom Barry” and describing Towards Ireland Free as “a very fair and complete account.”

Reunion of the surviving members of the West Cork Flying Column at the Kilmichael Ambush site, 1966, with Tom Barry (front centre)

Showing that you can take the man out of the army but not the army out of Tom Barry, his response was to pull out his war service and offer (threaten) to compare it with others’:

I am well aware that a number of [the signatories] are bedridden and even more aged and handicapped than I am myself, and it is far from my wish to name them and question their records and knowledge of the real history of the West Cork Brigade of the IRA.

With this display of faux sympathy done, Barry bared his teeth:

But, of course, I will do so if necessary…I am not in any way disparaging the records of some (and some only) of the signatories who gave splendid military service, but I am questioning their competence to agree or disagree with the over-all history of the events related in my booklet.

Tom Barry in later years

After all, “none of the signatories ever attended a GHQ or Divisional meeting, and, as far as I can recollect, only a couple ever even attended a Brigade Council meeting” – no small matter for a man who was still referred to in Ireland, even by critics, as ‘General.’ But even deference is no guarantee against disagreement, and Barry was reduced to telling people that while “I don’t think we should forget about” the past, “we should shut up about it” – the historian’s equivalent of taking one’s ball and going home.[31]

It was all rather undignified. At least one of the signatories, Dr Nudge Callanan, came to regret lending his name; after all, a photograph of Barry adorned the wall of his study. Adding to the confusion, it seems Callanan had not actually read Towards Ireland Free at the time, nor had at least two of the others. Perhaps they had just felt sorry for Deasy.[32]

It would not have been the first time.

Richard Mulcahy

Given the difficulties in remembering history and the trouble trying to do so could bring, it is fitting to end with what Deasy told Richard Mulcahy. The funeral of a mutual acquittance in 1961 brought them together for the first time since a captive Deasy signed his way out of execution in 1923, almost four decades ago. Both were following the coffin when a third man casually introduced them, the reunion eliciting little more than nods of recognition. It took a second funeral for the two former foes to begin chatting. In the subsequent dialogues, the topic turned, inevitably, to past conflicts.

What should be done, Deasy said, was not for people on one side to point out the mistakes done by the other; instead, everyone should list the mistakes their own had made and then proceed for there.[33]


[1] Irish Times, 17/02/1923

[2] 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. 359

[3] Ibid, p. 362 ; Irish Times, 17/02/1923

[4] Ibid, 24/02/1923

[5] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 360, 369

[6] Irish Times, 17/02/1923

[7] Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 121

[8] Ibid, pp. 119-20

[9] Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005), p. 255

[10] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 159

[11] University College Dublin Archives, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/b/181, p. 78

[12] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, p. 40

[13] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 227

[14] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 26, 491

[15] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 46-7

[16] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 230

[17] Ibid, p. 9

[18] Michael Collins: His Life and Times – Index: Appendix 1, Collins 22 Society (Accessed on 11/02/2022)

[19] Andrews, p. 313 ; Barry, Tom. Guerrilla Days in Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press), 2010), pp. 182, 184

[20] Collins 22 Society

[21] Deasy, Brother Against Brother, pp. 76-80

[22] Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973), pp. 168, 170

[23] Irish Times, 04/10/1973

[24] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 22

[25] Barry, Guerrilla Days in Ireland, p. 17 ; Deasy, Towards Ireland Free, pp. 160, 165, 249

[26] Ryan, p. 256 ; O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 160

[27] Ryan, pp. 271-2, 376

[28] Ibid, p. 372

[29] Barry, Tom. The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-1921 in West Work: Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free (Tralee and Dublin: Anvil Books Ltd, 1974), pp. 13-6

[30] Ibid, p. 4

[31] Irish Times, 12/12/1974, 13/12/1974, 21/12/1974

[32] Ryan, p. 375

[33] Mulcahy Papers, P7/D/45



Irish Times


Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)

Barry, Tom. Guerrilla Days in Ireland (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010)

Barry, Tom. The Reality of the Anglo-Irish War 1920-1921 in West Cork: Refutations, Corrections and Comments on Liam Deasy’s Towards Ireland Free (Tralee and Dublin: Anvil Books Ltd, 1974)

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

Deasy, Liam (edited by Chisholm, John E.) Towards Ireland Free: The West Cork Brigade in the War of Independence 1917-21 (Cork: Royal Carbery Books, 1973)

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

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 (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Óg Ó Ruairc, Pádraig) The Men Will Talk to Me: West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

Ryan, Meda. Tom Barry: IRA Freedom Fighter (Douglas Village, Co. Cork: Mercier Press, 2005)

University College Dublin Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers

Online Source

Michael Collins: His Life and Times – Index: Appendix 1, Collins 22 Society (Accessed on 11/02/2022)

Book Review: UVF: Behind the Mask, by Aaron Edwards (2017)

51l29jvlhvl._sx342_sy445_ql70_ml2_Never let it be said that the East Antrim unit of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) could not be equal opportunity killers when opportunity or need arose, as two men learned the hard way when abducted on the 7th April 1975, in North Belfast. Hugh McVeigh and David Douglas had stopped their delivery van in Newington Avenue, inadvertently giving the armed occupants of the cab tailing them the chance to step out at the same time as they did and waylay them. The captives were driven out of the city in another vehicle, to a lonely stretch of the Antrim coast where they were found five months later, buried together in a shallow grave, one on top of the other, with hands bound behind their backs and bullet holes in their heads.

Appearances aside, the executions had not exactly been a flawless process. According to one participant who confessed his culpability to the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), when a kneeling Douglas was shot, the gunman narrowly missed one of his accomplices, causing the latter to lose his balance and fall over. To add to the confusion, a couple of the group panicked and fled, for all the good it did McVeigh, who was shot next and then again, as was Douglas, presumably to be sure.

Hugh McVeigh (left) and David Douglas (right)

However shocking, such ruthlessness was the UVF’s raison d’etre, as a Brigade Officer, Billy Mitchell, who had been present at the double homicide, explained:

The UVF was…formed because they believed there was a sell-out, there was a rebellion which had to be stopped, whether you were from the Shankhill or East Antrim you had one enemy – the IRA [Irish Republican Army], indeed the nationalist community, as most UVF volunteers didn’t distinguish between the IRA and those they fought for.

It would seem that Loyalists did not always distinguish between themselves either, as both McVeigh and Douglas were, in theory, on the same side as their killers, albeit as part of a separate paramilitary organisation, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). But in Northern Ireland, differences, not similarities, were what mattered – and arguably still do – not to mention, perhaps most of all, power:

In many cases the focus was territory, there would not have been any philosophical differences between the two organisations there would have been issues around personalities, feelings in both sides that ‘we are the elite’.

Tellingly, Mitchell expressed the feud in military terms – “regimental loyalty was the key factor in competitiveness – not unlike the regular British Army” – a sign of how he and his UVF colleagues saw themselves as the Thin Orange Line holding back the Fenian fuzzie-wuzzies. It is doubtful, however, if even the most competitive of regiments in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces would have gone so far as to attack each other’s drinking clubs, as the UVF did to a UDA-linked shebeen, driving up in a small collection of black cabs and armed with iron bars wrapped in newspaper, which they used to trash the place in return for the beating of one of their members.

plate35The UVF assailants returned to their pints at their own bar, only to be invaded in turn later that day by a UDA revenge party, numbering hundreds in a purloined flotilla of their own which included cars, taxis, buses and even a tractor. The UVF ringleader responsible for the earlier vandalism was beaten within an inch of his life, another act of war in a feud that was to culminate in the murders of McVeigh and Douglas. Given the Loyalist willingness to inflict grievous bodily harm against their own, it is not surprising that at least one of the men arrested for the double homicide appeared more scared of being killed in jail than the prospect of jail itself.

Terence O’Neill

Even from the start, the UVF was as much driven by suspicion of the Unionist Enemy Within as the Nationalist Enemy Without. The men who gathered at a farm at Pomeroy, Co. Tyrone, in November 1965 – during an insufferably clichéd dark and stormy night – may have done so for fear of a resurgent IRA; the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Rising was only a year away, after all. But had the premiership of Terence O’Neill been more vigilant or sufficiently hard-line, there would be no need, in the minds of the UVF founding fathers, for them to take their current course of action, standing side by side inside a dimly-lit barn with their right hands raised as they were sworn into a reborn UVF.

Gusty Spence

One of these inductees, Augustus ‘Gusty’ Spence, had had prior experience in counter-insurgency as part of the Royal Ulster Rifles in Cyprus in the 1950s. That background was presumably why he had been asked to join the UVF by two men, one of whom was a Unionist Party politician. At least, this is according to Spence, who neglected to provide a name, but the idea of the UVF as something more than an expression of working-class Unionist discontent can be found elsewhere: the RUC Crime Special Department suspected a number of grandees in the Northern Irish state of links with Loyalist paramilitaries, an alleged alliance by the top and bottom of Unionism against the conciliatory policies of an offensively liberal O’Neill.

UVF member

But, like much about the period, speculations are common, certainty less so. As Aaron Edwards puts it:

Some of the oral history contributions collected for this book have been difficult to verify in the absence of written evidence, so it would be wrong to speculate. However, it appears that the archival record has been completely expunged of this suspected high-level conspiracy, which is suspicious for, even if it was an invention of the men subsequently arrested and prosecuted, it is reasonable to assume that the RUC would have intelligence (in the absence of evidence) either proving or disproving its existence, yet no paper trail exists.

Well, who knows? It is hard to prove a negative, after all. However they began, the likes of Gusty Spence would need no further prodding from above to take up the gun for God and Ulster, even if their initial attempts to be the counter-terror force the UVF envisioned itself as left something to be desired:

The reality was that few of them had ever fired a shot in anger. As a consequence, it was usually personal grievances, mixed with hefty doses of alcohol, which played a key role in the decision to target specific individuals.

Martin Doherty

That was in its early years of the mid-1960s. Three decades later and the UVF was reaping a body count to match their Republican foes. To take the month of May 1994 alone: 76-year-old Rose Mallon, murdered at a relative’s home near Dungannon on the 8th; nine days later, the fatal shooting of 42-year-old Eamon Fox and 24-year-old Gary Convie by the East Antrim Brigade, and then, the next day, the Mid-Ulster Brigade attacking a taxi depot in Lurgan, resulting in the deaths of two 17-year-olds, Gavin McShane and Shane McArdle. Terrorism was not limited to the Six Counties, as shown when shots were fired at a Dublin pub, killing 35-year-old Martin Doherty. As an IRA member, Doherty was the type of target the UVF had been formed against, but it is hard to see the net gain of a dead elderly woman and teenagers. For all the UVF talk of ‘daring raids’ and ‘taking the war to the enemy’, the unvarnished reality was more often than not the spraying of homes, workplaces and recreation centres by AK47 or VZ58 assault rifles, without mercy or warning.

Rose Mallon

Much has been written about the UVF and Loyalism in general. What gives Edwards’ book an advantage is its post-Troubles publication, in 2017, allowing us to see what happens to a war machine once the war is done. When Billy Greer died in July 2006, the organisation he had helped lead for decades was at a crossroads and seemingly unsure which way to go. A charismatic and popular man, his standing was enough for a number of senior Loyalists to attend his funeral in Belfast, complete with a purple UVF flag draped over his coffin and a guard of honour as the pall-bearers. ‘Here Lies a Soldier’ read the epitaph on his grave, above a UVF badge etched in gold lettering.

Yet, by the time of his death, Greer had surrendered his authority, resigning command of the East Antrim Brigade over allegations that subordinates of his were dealing drugs. That he jumped before needing a push probably saved him from worse. Nonetheless, even disgraced, Greer left big shoes which his successor, Gary Haggarty, struggled to fill. Not helping was the scale of the challenge: converting an armed militia into a politically sensitive, civic-minded ‘old comrades association’, preferably with less punishment beatings than before.

Haggarty’s tenure came to an awkward end when his past as a police informant came to light. In his conveniently timed absence, the rest of the UVF sentenced him to death – so much for ‘old comrades association’ – but the authorities got to him first on charges of murder. With all other bridges burnt, Haggarty turned supergrass against his erstwhile colleagues in January 2010.

Gary Haggarty

Do mishaps and missteps like these mean that the UVF is out for the count, to be relegated to the past as an unfortunate anachronism? Hardly, argues Edwards. The structures of the organisation at the time of his writing:

…are still in place and, despite the hard work of some genuinely progressive people, show little signs of withering away on their own. In fact, the most recent evidence suggests that a ‘Praetorian Guard’ has been formed to maintain the old adage of a ‘pike in the thatch’. One only hopes that the record provided in this book will highlight the wrong turn by loyalists in the past, before more young people ruin their lives by travelling the futile road of paramilitary violence.

One hopes, indeed.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

See also: Book Review: My Life in Loyalism, by Billy Hutchinson (with Gareth Mulvenna) (2020)