Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Coming to Galway

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Liam Mellows

In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?

The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”

If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!

Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.

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Irish Volunteers

Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.

“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.[1]

The Plot Thickens

Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:

…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.[2]

Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was an initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.

A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.[3]

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Irish Volunteers

Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.

What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.

It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.

It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.[4]

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Liam Mellows at the wheel of a car, with friends, including Harry Boland (centre back)

Optimism and Comradeship

Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.

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Fianna Éireann on the march

At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[5]

The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”

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Robert Brennan

Despite being an IRB initiate for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.

Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.

It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.

Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.

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The Mellows family house at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

Family Matters

Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.

Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.

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British soldiers in Dublin

“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.

“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”

“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”

“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.

“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.[6]

Na Fianna Éireann

At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”[7]

White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.

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Fianna Éireann Scouts

The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.

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Countess Markievicz

The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).[8]

More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.

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Con Colbert

The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.

From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the latter bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would professed himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.[9]

On the Road

10419557_492565247546650_4141258369633156099_nIn May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:

This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.

When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead![10]

In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”[11]

Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be implemented, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.[12]

The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.

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Fianna Éireann  and Irish Volunteers transport weapons from Howth, July 1914

As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.[13]

A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.

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The Mauser Model 1871, of the type transported into Howth and Kilcoole

Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.[14]

Police Watch

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Bulmer Hobson

His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.

Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.[15]

Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.[16]

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Tom Clarke

Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.[17]

But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.[18]

A Meeting in Tuam

The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.

“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”

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Market Square, Tuam, Co. Galway

The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.

“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:

…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.

It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.

“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.

“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.

“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.

Destroying the Evidence

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Seán Mac Diarmada

Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.

When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.

According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:

The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.

Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.[19]

This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”[20]

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RIC members

In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.[21]

An Athenry Return

Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.

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Athenry, Co. Galway

The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.

When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.

(Whatever, indeed…)

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Irish Volunteers on parade

The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.[22]

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Patrick Pearse

But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.[23]

Preparations

When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.

“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”[24]

On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.

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Clarinbridge, Co, Galway, today

As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.

They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.

“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”[25]

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Irish Volunteers stand to attention, Co. Sligo

Shams

These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:

I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.[26]

Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.

Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.

“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.[27]

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Advertisement for uniforms, showing the spread of the Volunteer movement

If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.

Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.

He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.[28]

Nora Connolly

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Nora Connolly

Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want. We have every confidence in you.

Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.[29]

Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.[30]

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James Connolly

Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”[31]

The Search Begins

The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”

All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.

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Helena Molony

At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.

As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.

Glasgow

When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.

Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.

They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.

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Zeppeln

The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:

He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.

The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.

Flight

After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:

We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.

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Barney Mellows

There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.[32]

Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.

McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.

tgsa00657When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.[33]

With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.

The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.[34]

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Denis McCullough

Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.

As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.[35]

To be continued in: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

References

[1] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 6-7

[2] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 7

[3] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 12-3

[4] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), pp. 4-5

[5] Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950), pp. 26-7

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 2

[8] Ibid, pp. 5-6

[9] Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5

[10] O’Neill, Seán (BMH / WS 1219), pp. 12, 18

[11] Martin, p. 6 ; White, p. 8

[12] White, p. 9

[13] Kavanagh, Seamus (BMH / WS 1670), pp. 12-4

[14] O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 139 ; Holohan, Garry (BMH / WS 328), p. 44 ; MacCarthy, Thomas (BMH / WS 307), p. 9

[15] Hobson, Bulmer (BMH / WS 87) pp. 3-4

[16] National Library of Ireland, MS 31,654(3)

[17] Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), p. 238

[18] Hynes, pp. 7,10

[19] Connacht Tribune, 22/05/1915 ; Costello, John D. (BMH / WS 1330), pp. 4-5

[20] White, p. 10

[21] Ibid

[22] Connacht Tribune, 17/07/1915, 20/11/1915

[23] Monahan, p. 13 ; Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 7

[24] Kearns, Daniel (BMH / WS 1124), p. 3

[25] Ibid, pp. 7-8

[26] Connacht Tribune, 18/03/1916

[27] Ibid, 25/03/1916

[28] Broderick, John (BMH / WS 344), p. 3 ; Irish Times, 26, 28/03/1916

[29] Connolly O’Brien, Nora (BMH / WS 286), pp. 9-10

[30] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[31] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919), pp. 76, 89-90

[32] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 10-14

[33] McCormack, Patrick (BMH / WS 339), pp. 8-9

[34] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 14-15

[35] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 199

Bibliography

Books

Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)

Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968)

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

Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broderick, John, WS 344

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Connolly O’Brien, Nora, WS 286

Costello, John D., WS 1330

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Hobson, Bulmer, WS 87

Holohan, Garry, WS 328

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kavangh, Seamus, WS 1670

Kearns, Daniel, WS 1124

MacCarthy, Thomas, WS 307

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

McCormack, Patrick, WS 339

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

White, Alfred, WS 1207

Newspapers

Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

National Library of Ireland

MS 31,654(3)

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A Debatable Ambush: The Newtowncunningham Incident in Co. Donegal, May 1922

The First Week of the Month

NEWTOWNCUNNINGHAM HORROR – IRA PARTY AMBUSHED – DEADLY FIRE BY MUTINEERS – 3 KILLED; 5 WOUNDED…

…FATAL CONFLICT IN BUNCRANA – MUTINEERS RAID A BANK – FIERCE FIGHT IN STREET – LITTLE GIRL DIES OF WOUNDS…

…SPECIALS’ POST ATTACKED – FIGHT NEAR DERRY…

…A FARM COMMANDEERED.

The multiple incidents throughout the morning of the 4th May 1922, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries in Co. Donegal, did not appear at first glance to be connected. That they were stand-alone events, independent of each other, would have been a reasonable assumption, given that these were merely a fraction of the total number of violent outbreaks that had occurred throughout Ireland in recent times.

For that week alone, the Derry Journal reported scenes in Dublin, Belfast, Kilkenny, Derry, Tyrone and Mullingar. Those Ulster-based acts were due to sectarian hatreds, always simmering beneath the surface of Northern life. As for those elsewhere, more secular passions were to blame as tensions between the two rival factions within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that had been brewing since the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922 boiled over.

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IRA members in the streets of Dublin, 1922

The four headlines above, however, differed from the others in that they had been born out of an attempt to solve both problems, burying the IRA divide by intervening together in Ulster. To the men involved, their efforts had sprung from the highest of motives and most pragmatic considerations, even as they backfired spectacularly and murderously.[1]

“A Veritable Tornado”

The Newtowncunningham incident was to receive particular attention in the weeks ahead, being subjected to the worst possible interpretations from one side and counter-accusations by the other. What did seem clear, at least, was that a motorised convoy of pro-Treaty IRA men in three Crossley lorries had driven into Newtowncunningham village, Co. Donegal, to find the walls on either side of the street lined by their opposing counterparts in the anti-Treaty IRA.

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Newtowncunningham today

For reasons that were to be hotly debated, this encounter erupted in a gunfight, in which the Pro-Treatyites received the worst of it. One of them was killed outright in the opening fusillade, with another six injured, three seriously. The convoy sped out of the village and took its casualties to a farmhouse. From there they were able to telephone for medical help from Derry.

The doctor who responded to the call arrived minutes before two of the wounded expired, leaving him to dress the wounds of the remaining three as best he could. The sixth casualty was unavailable for treatment, having been left behind in Newtowncunningham and, presumably, now a prisoner.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers on a lorry

The engagement lasted no more than three minutes, yet had been savage in its intensity, with one survivor describing it as a “veritable tornado.” That it was an ambush, as initially reported, would be among the details disputed.

“Amongst the ambushers was identified the leader of the party who raided the Bank in Buncrana early in the day,” added the Derry Journal, the first hint at a connection between these seemingly disparate events.[2]

Partnership

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Michael Collins

The bitter irony was that it had been to stop such fratricidal conflict that the Anti-Treatyites had been there in the first place. In the spring of 1922, a series of meetings took place between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch, the generalissimos of the pro and anti-Treaty IRA wings respectively, with a number of their close aides attending.

A lot had changed and much remained the same. In the previous year, Ireland had been a country at war between the Irish Republican forces and the British military. Now, the only areas where Crown forces remained were Dublin – from where they were due to be transferred back to Britain – and the North-East corner of the island, long a flashpoint for trouble. The Truce of July 1921 allowed the rest of Ireland to at last breathe more easily but, in the Six Counties of Ulster, violence remained a fact of life:

While the memorable truce was generally honoured in the South of Ir[eland], it will be recalled that there was no attempt made to recognise a similar situation in the North, and more specifically in the present Six Counties, Eastern Donegal and other areas close to the present border.

The Crown Forces – Tans, Ulster Special Police, etc., whether they were supposed to honour their truce or not still backed up the loyal minority of present Ulster in directing their programme in Belfast and their general reign of terror in amongst the Nationalists elsewhere.

In the face of such provocation and desperate to do something:

The General Council of the IRA decided to recognise no truce situation in the North, and ideas were exchanged as to what remedy could be applied to meet the pressure on the Northern Nationalists.[3]

So wrote Seán Lehane years later, in March 1935, in his letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane had been among those chosen to be part of the said remedy: the agreement between Lynch and Collins to send assistance up to their beleaguered Northern compatriots in the form of men drawn from the anti-Treaty party.

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Frank Aiken

A Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, Lehane was appointed the O/C of the new force. He would in turn report to Frank Aiken, the Armagh-based IRA leader, though in practice the Southerners would be acting on their own. Aiken had held himself aloof from the Treaty divisions, careful to maintain a guarded neutrality, and was thus an ideal compromise choice for Lynch and Collins.

Lehane’s instructions, as told to him by Lynch, were “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].”[4]

Cross Purposes

That last part was a hint that the two IRA factions were not being entirely forthright with each other. The Pro-Treatyites, after all, were intending to only fight the British where they still were, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. In contrast, such a policy reversal would suit the Anti-Treatyites perfectly, breaking the peace as it would and putting an end to what they saw as an unacceptable compromise.

As Florence O’Donoghue, one of Lynch’s confidants (who may have attended the meetings with Collins), put it:

Liam [Lynch]’s view was that, apart from the Army’s plain duty to defend our people in the North, vigorous development of activity against the Crown forces there, if supported by pro-Treaty leaders and pro-Treaty Army element in the counties along the border, would be regarded by the British as a breach of the Treaty, and would create a situation in which a re-united Army would again confront the common enemy.[5]

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Florence O’Donoghue

Which was the last thing Collins wanted. But O’Donoghue was a romantic at heart, and painted the secret pact between Lynch and Collins accordingly:

For both of them – and it was very evident there was in this project 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.[6]

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Liam Lynch

Such regards did not cancel out the need for discretion. For his part, Collins would contribute weapons to the venture, donated by the Pro-Treatyites to the IRA units which fell under Lynch’s direct command, and then sent up North. The Anti-Treatyites would be recompensed with weapons that had been first given to the Pro-Treatyites by their new-found British partners, who were presumably unaware as to where their gifts were earmarked.

That way, any guns that came to Britain’s attention would not be traced back to Collins, still engaged as he was in negotiations with Westminster on the implementations of the Treaty. It was a skilful meld of subterfuge and politicking, but such secrecy also ensured that the right Irish hand remained unaware what the left was doing. In time, this would prove disastrous.[7]

Opening Acts

Still, things proceeded smoothly at first. One morning in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw a flotilla of small vans pass by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust from the roads. 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 carried a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.[8]

Even in the heart of the anti-Treaty command, the Four Courts in Dublin, this mystery was maintained. While performing clerical duties there as part of its garrison, Todd Andrews was puzzled at the exchange of lorries with the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. While Andrews was dimly aware that munitions were being passed between the two sides, he saw no paperwork, and heard nothing beyond gossip and conjecture, that could account for this unexpected glasnost.[9]

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Four Courts, Dublin

For the opening moves, the leaders of the new venture met in McGarry’s Hotel, Letterkenny, having driven there the day before from Dublin. Present were Seán Lehane (Divisional O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Adjutant), Joe McGuirk (Quartermaster), Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), Denis Galvin (Support Officer) and two other men, Seán Fitzgerald and Mossy Donnegan.

Together, they formed the command echelon of the First Northern Division, with authority over the anti-Treaty IRA units in Derry, East Donegal, South Donegal and North-West Donegal. With everyone eager to start, it was agreed to seize two positions in Co. Donegal that would serve as launch-pads into the rest of Ulster, these being Raphoe town and Glenveagh Castle in the north-west county.[10]

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Raphoe today

The former posed no difficulty. Two days later, on the 29th April 1922, the Irish Times reported how:

Unofficial [anti-Treaty] IRA forces who marched into Raphoe from the Letterkenny direction, yesterday commandeered the Masonic Hall, a solicitor’s office, and other buildings. They have fortified the buildings. The official [pro-Treaty] IRA occupy the barracks.[11]

Raphoe was now host to two different armies. Elsewhere in Ireland, such as Limerick, Athlone, Mullingar and Kilkenny, such arrangements had led to stand-offs, kidnappings and even deaths. In Raphoe, however, the two sides seemed to have co-existed amiably enough.

Moving In

Since the takeover of the Masonic Hall had been unopposed, there had been no need for violence or other unpleasantries. The IRA intruders also took over the neighbouring office of a local solicitor as he was the possessor of the keys to the hall.

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Masonic Hall, Raphoe

“We were quite gentlemanly in our dealings with this solicitor,” recalled Michael O’Donoghue, a future GAA president and one of the ten-strong group who had entered Raphoe.

The solicitor in question handed over the keys with good grace, asking in return for some sort of written authorisation. These he duly received in the form of documents issued under the authority of the anti-Treaty IRA Executive in the Four Courts, and signed by Seán Lehane and Peadar O’Donnell as the Divisional O/C and Adjutant respectively.

The only other request from the solicitor was that he keep his silver antiques and other valuables that were in the two large glass cabinets in his bedroom (his office was adjoined to his private residence). When this was also accepted by the new occupants of the building, the solicitor duly locked the cabinets and presented the keys to O’Donoghue, complete with two copies of an inventory to be signed.

Thanks to this minimum of fuss, the new garrison was able to get to work in fortifying the Hall with sandbags before preparations could be made for the next stage in the operation. With Glenveagh Castle also taken, O’Donoghue set up his workshop there and began training select groups from each of the IRA brigade areas in his speciality of military engineering.

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Glenveagh Castle

O’Donoghue drew up a plan for the making and assembling of mines, bombs and other explosives and left his assistant to oversee their manufacturing process, using whatever scraps of material at hand. Meanwhile, he accompanied Lehane in liaising between the various brigade areas and setting up Special Engineering Services there, no easy task considering that he was having to build from scratch.

Four brigades in Donegal and Derry were visited and reformed accordingly in the space of about ten days. The absence of bases remained a problem, with the Anti-Treatyites possessing only three barracks in its area. The rest of such buildings, now evacuated by British forces, were now in pro-Treaty IRA hands.[12]

Meeting the Opposition

The first of many problems was how the Anti-Treatyites, as in Raphoe, did not have area to themselves. Lehane and his officers may have called themselves the First Northern Division but there was already a unit with that name, whose members had decided that their place lay with the Treaty, and they far outnumbered their opposing counterparts in Donegal.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers in uniform and on parade

According to Lehane, writing to the press on the 10th May, a week after the tragedies, he had attempted to contact the general of the pro-Treaty forces in order to minimise the risk of the two separate Divisions butting heads.

Unfortunately, Joe Sweeney was not nearly as accommodating, and a fortnight passed without an answer. In the meantime, the Anti-Treatyites were finding themselves under constant harassment, being often held up, searched, disarmed or even detained by Pro-Treatyites.

Pressed by his subordinates to do something, Lehane finally gained a meeting with Sweeney at the latter’s headquarters in Drumboe Castle. Daly was with Lehane, while Sweeney was accompanied by his adjutant, Tom Glennon from Belfast.

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The ruin of Drumboe Castle today

“We met on friendly terms and discussed the whole position,” Lehane wrote:

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.

Lehane asked Sweeney, if not assist, then at least not to hinder him in his work. Was it his intention otherwise for civil strife in Donegal? But the other man remained unmoved:

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.’

In the face of such a bald declaration, there was nothing else Lehane or Daly could say to make a difference, not even when Daly appealed to Sweeney on the basis of personal friendship. Their olive branch having withered, the two Anti-Treatyites withdrew from Drumboe Castle, and the situation between the two IRA factions remained frigid.[13]

Sweeney’s implacable attitude raises the question of how much he knew about the secret deal between Collins and Lynch. When interviewed years later, he described how:

Collins sent an emissary to say that he was sending arms to Donegal, and that they were to be handed over to certain persons – he didn’t tell me who they were – who would come with credentials to my headquarters.[14]

Cooperation with the Anti-Treatyites did not interest Sweeney in the slightest. When rifles arrived at Drumboe Castle in two lorries from Dublin, Sweeney was obliging enough to have their serial numbers chiselled off before smuggling some over to the IRA units in the Six Counties. He kept the rest, however, unwilling to risk them ending up in the hands of those his adjutant had proclaimed as their enemies.[15]

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Idealised depiction of an Irish soldier in the pro-Treaty journal ‘An tÓglách’, June 1922

Secrets and Uncertainties

This would suggest that the full details of the joint-offensive deal were unknown to Sweeney. Alternatively, he may not have cared, thinking that whatever had been agreed to in distant Dublin was not relevant in Donegal. After all, for all of Lehane’s protestations of brotherhood, the Anti-Treatyites did not always conduct themselves as the model of civility.

Only a month ago, on the night of the 25th March, the pro-Treaty garrison in Newtowncunningham barracks had found themselves under attack when Anti-Treatyites arrived in a number of motorcars and, after taking up positions that overlooked the barracks, gave vent with rifles and revolvers.

As reported in the Derry Journal:

The affray, which was characterised with bloodshed, opened with a few intermittent rifle shots and developed into something in the nature of a pitched battle.

For three hours, the village inhabitants were kept awake and on tenterhooks by the crack of gunshots. When the assailants finally withdrew, having failed to take the barracks, they left behind dozens of spent cartridges.[16]

Even after the arrival of Lehane and his Munster auxiliaries, the behaviour of the Anti-Treatyites could be found wanting. When the Derry Journal and Derry Standard earned their ire, copies of those newspapers were seized by armed men from the train taking them to their retailers on the night of the 31st March, and burnt. When fresh copies were sent on a second train, this too was held up and the reprints destroyed.

One of the hijackers, noted by the Derry Journal, “spoke with a pronounced Southern accent.”

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IRA members

Elsewhere, parties of Anti-Treatyites were reported to be holding up cars at gunpoint in West Donegal, and either forcing the motorists to drive them elsewhere or simply taking the cars for themselves. It is perhaps unsurprising that Sweeney would be reluctant to ally with such men, let alone permit them more weapons than they already had.[17]

Plan of Action

Squeezed between the more numerous Pro-Treatyites in Donegal and the well-equipped Crown forces stationed in the Six Counties, the Anti-Treatyites were in a precarious position. Throwing to the winds his initial plan for a gradual build-up, Lehane summoned another council of war in McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny. There, he drew up plans for an ambitious triple-pronged night attack.

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Seán Lehane, Charlie Daly and Jack Fitzgerald (standing, left to right) pose for a group photograph with two others seated

Daly was to command a sixteen-strong force, consisting of ten Tyrone and six Kerry men, to assault Molenan House, Co. Derry, which was held by about twenty Crown policemen.

At the same time, Lehane was to take the lead with thirty others against a British camp at Burnfoot that lay about five miles from Derry City. As this base was strongly garrisoned with soldiers as well as police, complete with armoured cars and machine-guns, this looked to be a daunting mission, particularly since so few of the Donegal natives involved had seen any action before, but Lehane hoped that it would at least serve as a baptism of fire for them.

The third advance was to be a robbery on the Ulster Bank in Buncrana, a village in the north of Donegal. There, they seize all the banknotes that the five-man team could find.

At the appointed time, Lehane moved from Raphoe, where his column had assembled, riding northwards in a small fleet of stolen cars. The men carried rifles and hand grenades, with revolvers and automatics for the officers. Travelling slowly along byroads, the flotilla came across a large crowd, mostly of young men, who had gathered near a road junction, eight miles out of Raphoe.

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IRA members

These were surrounded and searched for arms, something which they submitted to with apparent good humour. O’Donoghue felt ashamed all the same, the treatment he and his comrades were meting out reminding him too much of that by the Black and Tans he had fought against in Cork.[18]

Burnfoot

When the column neared Burnfoot Railway Station, they left their vehicles to advance more quietly on foot. It was now midnight, the designated zero hour for the operation. After some last minute instructions from Lehane, the men went about their allocated tasks.

O’Donoghue’s was to cut the telegraph cables in the station to ensure that no calls for aid could be sent to the British garrison in Derry. This O’Donoghue did with the help of a Derryman called McCourt who acted as a guide for what was for the Corkman a foreign land.

He was about to find out just how foreign.

As the pair left the station, their mission a success, a cyclist suddenly emerged out of the night towards them. O’Donoghue called out to him to halt and, when the man continued to ride on, the Corkonian – not wanting to risk a shot lest it lose them the element of surprise – grabbed him as he tried to pass by and forced him to the ground. McCourt brandished a revolver in the stranger’s face, with a demand to know his religion.

O’Donoghue was shocked:

It was my first experience of sectarian animosity in Ulster and to see an armed I.R.A. man acting like a truculent and religious bigot angered me. I turned on McCourt: “None of that” I ordered, “I don’t care a rap what his religion is and I’ll ask the questions [emphasis his].”

The frightened man was led away to be detained in the large shed where the other civilians who the column had come across were being held. With the area as secure as it could be, the IRA men checked the time and saw that it was about 1 am.[19]

Moving in two files, towards the camp two miles away in the dark, the IRA men entered a boreen that ran parallel to the main Derry road.  When they found the way blocked by a waterlogged trench, the men crept carefully alongside the fences lining the boreen until they had bypassed the pool.

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A boreen (country road) in Ireland

Nearing the Burnfoot camp, they froze when they saw lights flashing ahead of them in the distance. Some sort of message was being sent out, the men were sure, but none of them could tell what. Had they been discovered? Were the enemy alerted to their presence?

The column members pushed on regardless, being rewarded by the sight of a flickering red light that signified a fire. The British would surely not be so foolish as to leave such an obvious guide in the dark if they thought they were about to be under attack.

Emboldened, the IRA men continued along the boreen until they were overlooking the enemy camp, a hundred feet below and a hundred and fifty yards away. The column could not have asked for a better ambush site as its members carefully chose their places.[20]

The Battle at Burnfoot

The stillness of the night was shattered by a single shrill whistle-blast from Lehane, signalling the first volley from thirty or so rifles. Struggling to control his weapon’s recoil, O’Donoghue fired the full five bullets in the magazine before hurrying to reload.

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IRA members with rifles

In response, Verey rockets were sent up from the camp, one after another, lighting up the hillside until O’Donoghue felt as if he was beneath the spotlights of a theatre stage. Then came the rattle of machine-guns, mounted in the British armoured cars, the memory of which would be seared into his memory:

The din was terrific. Bullets whizzed overhead and thudded into the fence at our rear; they tore strips and sent splinters flying from the fence behind which we kept hunched down. Sharp crackling explosions overhead and in front – the enemy was using explosive bullets.

Outmatched in equipment and, fearing the immediate arrival of Crown reinforcements from Derry, Lehane gave the order to pull back. O’Donoghue and three others formed a rearguard, during which he was infuriated to find that ammunition and even a still-loaded revolver had been left behind, oversights that the munitions-starved Anti-Treatyites could scarcely afford.

O’Donoghue grabbed what he could and, when he judged that enough time had passed for the others to withdraw, the four of them fired a final riposte before leaving in turn. The enemy fire, having abated, returned with a vengeance from machine-guns, forcing the rearguard to crawl on their bellies until they were out of danger.

In the dark, they almost collided with Lehane, their O/C having conscientiously lingered to ensure that his four subordinates had made good their own escape. The IRA men returned to Burnfoot by daybreak and fell in for inspection. Two of them had been wounded, albeit slightly, and five had gone missing, presumably after taking a wrong turn in the dark.

Still, as the rest of the men pulled back towards Newtowncunningham, exhausted though they were, they could not help feeling jubilant at their first completed mission.[21]

Rare ‘Papishes’

The column was aided by their enemies’ misconception that it had originated from Derry, where British soldiers and police spent the morning after stopping and searching pedestrians in a futile effort to identify the assailants. Other than a grazed hand, the occupants of Burnfoot Camp had avoided casualties.[22]

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A British Army checkpoint in Ireland

When the IRA men reached Newtowncunningham in the early hour of 6 am, they took up billets in the village. Lehane, O’Donoghue and four others, all of them West Corkmen, selected a large mansion, half a mile away. Knocking on the door, they were admitted by the owner, who O’Donoghue remembered as being named ‘Black’.

As with the solicitor in Raphoe, the minimum of fuss was made. Despite his Orange-Loyalist outlook, Black played the role of gracious host as he invited his unexpected guests to a drink. Some awkward small talk was attempted, mostly about the political situation in Ulster, not that it was something any of the Corkonians could offer much about. It was something of a meeting of cultures, particularly for Back, who had never met Southern republicans before, and he was pleasantly surprised at their lack of interest in religious differences.

“To his mind, we were indeed rare ‘Papishes’,” remembered O’Donoghue.

As polite as everyone was, the IRA men were firm in their wants as they ordered no one to leave the house – a point they ensured by bolting and barring the exits – while taking the family bedrooms for their own. After a few hours of shut-eye, a messenger arrived at the door, breathlessly asking for Commandant Lehane.[23]

‘A New and Appalling Catastrophe’

Once allowed in, the newcomer told them that he was from the squad sent to Buncrana. While making their getaway from the Ulster Bank they had robbed, the IRA men had been fired upon by the pro-Treaty garrison in the village. Despite suffering a couple of wounds, the Anti-Treatyites had all escaped and were currently resting in Newtowncunningham with the rest.

For Lehane, O’Donghue and the others, there was little time to lose:

We hurriedly dressed and came down to a substantial breakfast, served by two daughters of the house with politeness and efficiency, but icily distant and formal in their manner.

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Charlie Daly

After eating, the six Corkmen hurried to the village and mobilised the rest of the IRA there. A dejected Daly had also returned with his squad, having failed to take Molenon House. They had arrived to find the building locked and barricaded. After hammering on the door and shuttered windows had failed to gain entrance or even provoke the occupants – assuming there were any – into any sort of reaction, the IRA party reluctantly retired.

As Daly related this, O’Donoghue could not help but feel for his colleague:

It was an ignominious failure for Charlie to report and he felt it all the more keenly since we in Lehane’s party had fought an all-out battle.”[24]

Lehane and his officers next inspected the wounded pair from Buncrana. One had a minor leg wound, while the other, a Tipperary native called Doheny, had been shot through the lung. While a wan Doheny kept up a brave face, there was no mistaking his urgent need for medical attention. He was about to be driven to the nearby hospital but, before his comrades could do so, as O’Donoghue put it, “a new and appalling catastrophe occurred with the suddenness of a bolt from the blue.”[25]

Inquest

An inquest was held the day after on the 5th May. As it took place in the pro-Treaty IRA base of Drumboe Castle, it is unsurprising that the findings would have a certain slant.

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A still-intact Drumboe Castle

The first witness was Colonel-Commander Tom Glennon. He told how, upon receiving word of the fighting in Buncrana on the morning of the 4th, he set off with a party of fifty men in three Crossleys and five Fords. Glennon led from the front, seated next to the driver of the first Crossley. When entering Newtowncunningham, he told the court, a man ran out from behind a wall and shouted ‘halt’.

The word was barely out when rifle rife was heard coming from both sides of the road. Deciding that to resist was suicidal, exposed as they were and outnumbered – he believed he was facing between 100 and 150 assailants – Glennon told the driver to speed on as far he could.

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IRA members lining up to shoot

“You did not anticipate an attack?” asked the coroner, James Boyle.

Glennon: No; if I had, they would not have got us as easily as they did.

Boyle: You were not going to attack any person in Newtowncunningham?

Glennon: No, we were not.

Boyle: Was there anything said besides the word ‘halt’ before fire was opened on you?

Glennon: No, the shout ‘halt’ and the first volley of shots came at the same time.

Boyle: Have you heard that a man named Lehane was in charge of the attacking party?

Glennon: Yes, I heard that.

Boyle: Is he from County Donegal?

Glennon: No, he is from County Cork.

Glennon added that his men had had their rifles at straight, as opposed to at the ready which was what they would have done had they been expecting anything. In contrast, Glennon said he had seen, after driving out of Newtowncunningham, several enemy scouts positioned nearby. He concluded from this that the attack had been carefully planned.

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Colourised photograph of pro-Treaty soldiers

Boyle: Is it possible that they knew you were going through to Buncrana?

Glennon: It is possible.

A member of the jury, Mr Shesgreen, was next to question the witness, asking if he knew the time of the incident. Glennon replied that it had been 6 pm.

Shesgreen: That is two hours after the truce was declared. Do you know whether the attackers got through notice from the headquarters in the Four Courts about the truce?

Glennon: I could not say. Official information did not reach Drumboe until after we left.

In a tragic postscript, an armistice between the two IRA factions had been signed that morning in Dublin between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch. It had come too late to make a difference in Newtowncunningham, however.

The three dead men – all Donegal natives – were identified as Corporal Joseph McGinley, Daniel McGill and Edward Gallagher. McGinley had had two wounds, one in his upper thigh, fracturing the bone, and the other low in the abdomen. McGill had been hit in the back and near the kidneys, while Gallagher had received two bullets to the groin.[26]

An Alternative Point of View

The pro-Treaty line was that Newtowncunningham had been a premeditated ambush, their soldiers driving obliviously into a death-trap without so much as a warning. Lehane replied to these accusations in a letter to the press on the 10th May:

With reference to the recent tragic incident…I wish to state the published accounts of the facts connected therewith misrepresents the actual circumstances of the occurrences.

By noon on the 4th May, Lehane had received word that his men in Buncrana had been “fired on without warning by a party of pro-Treaty forces, who were concealed in houses.”[27]

On this point, Lehane had a legitimate complaint as the Anti-Treatyites had been leaving the Ulster Bank in Buncrana at the time. Of course, as they had just held up the staff and robbed the bank of £8000, it was perhaps still not something that cast them in the best of lights.

Bearing the brunt of the fighting were the civilians who found themselves caught up in the crossfire. Five were wounded, some seriously. Among the victims were a father and daughter, said to be hit by the same bullet that ripped the hand of John Kavanagh before striking Mary Ellen Kavanagh (19). Peter McGowan (56) was injured in both legs, while Patrick Maguire received a flesh wound near his eye.

Of the combatants, John Doherty (24) of the Pro-Treatyites was shot in the elbow. Among the raiders, two were initially reported to have been slain, but that was erroneous. The pair were instead wounded, one thought to be seriously, though they were able to drive away with the rest of their party.

The most tragic of all was 9-year old Essie Fletcher. She was brought to Derry Infirmary with a gunshot wound in her abdomen. Surgery was quickly performed but to no avail and she died later that day.[28]

Lehane’s Version

While unaware of the full extent of the mayhem in Buncrana, Lehane knew that he had to do something. Relations with the other side had never been cordial in Donegal but now they had taken a decidedly violent turn. After consulting his officers, they agreed to move to Buncrana. He did not add in his letter to the press what he had hoped to achieve there – returning to the scene of a battle seems odd when his intentions were supposedly peaceful.

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IRA members

In any case, it was 6 pm by the time Lehane had mobilised his men and they were about to board their cars when a growing rumble warned of the arrival of another force. Mindful that these could be British soldiers or Crown policemen on the warpath from Burnfoot, Lehane “with a view to protecting my men…gave the order to take cover behind a broken-down fence, which was the only place available at the moment.”

Only he and Daly remained out in the open. They walked down the road to ascertain who was coming. Seeing that they were fellow IRA men, albeit of a pro-Treaty persuasion, Lehane and Daly called on them to halt.

Instead of doing so a shot was fired from the third lorry, the bullet passing over my head and smashing the fanlight of the door of a house near by, in which our wounded comrade, who had been brought from Buncrana, was then lying.

That was all the spark that was needed:

There was an immediate outbreak of fire from both forces, the pro-Treaty forces using Thompson guns as their lorries dashed though the streets. My men were ordered out on the street, as their positions were being enfiladed by fire from the lorries.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Treatyites were coming under attack from another direction. The men in the five Ford cars making up the tail of the convoy, which the Anti-Treatyites had been previously unaware, had dismounted to take shelter in a field, from where they could contribute to the shooting. Taking cover as well, the Anti-Treatyites fired back and managed to outflank the other side, forcing them back.

Lehane stressed the essentially defensive nature of his side: “On several occasions parties of them were at our mercy, but we fired only with the intention of dislodging them.”

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Pro-Treaty soldiers

Two Pro-Treatyites were taken prisoner after falling out of their Crossleys. One had been slightly hurt by the impact but otherwise they were unharmed. In addition to the POWs, the Anti-Treatyites took possession of two rifles, a revolver, six rifle grenades and some ammunition, as well as the Ford cars the Pro-Treatyites had abandoned in their flight.

After being brought to Raphoe, the captives told of how they had been ordered to leave their lorries and fight in the event of an attack. Lehane stressed how these two had been well-treated, the injured man tended to by a doctor, after which they were allowed to go free the next morning.

As for the truce that had come just before and too late, Lehane could plead a good excuse for not knowing of it:

Owing to our being on active service I did not get that wire until the following day, and only learned of the truce on the arrival of the Dublin papers on the morning of the 5th.

While expressing his regrets and that of his staff, and their sympathies for the families of the deceased, Lehane declared his conscience clean: “The actions and honesty of purpose of my officers and men will bear the fullest investigation.”

As for relations between the two sundered IRA wings, Lehane bore no grudges: “I am willing now as heretofore to secure an honourable understanding.”[29]

Final Rebuttals

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Joseph Sweeney

Such a hope seemed very distant. Sweeney wrote in turn to the press, complaining at Lehane’s attempt “to make it appear that an unprovoked attack was made by our men on an inoffensive party,” as he witheringly put it.

The first shot could not have come from the third Crossley as Lehane claimed, countered Sweeney, because that vehicle had not yet appeared from around the bend before the shooting began. The fact that the Pro-Treatyites were chatting and singing while on board, Sweeney wrote, alone testified to their complete surprise.

As for the claim from the other side that they had been unsure as to who had been driving towards them:

There are people who overheard conversations of the [anti-Treaty] men in Newtowncunningham prior to the ambush prepared to state that the ambush was prepared with the full knowledge as to who were to be attacked.

As if that was not evidence enough, he continued, an Anti-Treatyite had said to one of Sweeney’s men that not only had the ambush been planned, but not enough casualties had been inflicted in his opinion.

He conceded that the prior attempt at peace talks at Drumboe Castle, as described by Lehane, had occurred. But Sweeney was adamant that:

It should be understood that as an officer responsible to GHQ of the Army of the Elected Government of the people, it did not lie within my power to arrange “a basis of unity and co-operation” with a man who absolutely repudiated the Army, GHQ, and the people’s Government.

Sweeney’s closure to his letter was both an echo and a rebuttal of Lehane’s own: “An honourable understanding may be had by the recognition of constituted authority.”[30]

‘The Attitude of Hate and Bias’

Years later, O’Donoghue would be brooding on the injustice he believed had been inflicted on him and his own. To him, that there had been a truce was particularly damning to the Pro-Treatyites who had “set out the morning after the truce to round up the IRA. The Free State officers…knew of the truce, the IRA officers did not [emphasis his].”

The underlining showed how strongly O’Donoghue felt on the matter. That the verdict from the coroner’s inquest was one of “wilful murder” was another grievance of his: “This shows the attitude of hate and bias fostered at the time by the Press in general against the Irish Republican Army.”

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Anti-Treaty poster, depicting Michael Collins in league with Britain and Ulster Unionists in suppressing republicanism. Ironically, Collins had been behind a joint IRA venture in the North

Regardless of the whys and whats, Lehane, O’Donoghue and a few other officers took advantage of the armistice to return to Dublin, albeit briefly – there was still work to be done in the North, after all. Lehane reported to Liam Lynch in the Four Courts on the progress made so far, while O’Donoghue was impatient to add the necessary equipment to his bomb-making workshop. Regardless of the bloodshed in Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, they and the rest of their colleagues fully intended to continue their mission.[31]

Towards the end of the month, on the 27th May, the eighth victim of the Buncrana shootout, 19-year-old Mary Ellen Kavangh died in the Derry Infirmary. She had been shot in the upper part of her back, with the bullet lodging in her left lung. Death was ruled to be due to haemorrhage. That made her the second fatality at Buncrana, after 9-year old Essie Fletcher, and the fifth one on that unhappy day.[32]

See also:

A Death in Athlone: The Controversial Case of George Adamson, April 1922

Bloodshed in Mullingar: Civil War Begins in Co. Westmeath, April 1922

References

[1] Derry Journal, 05/05/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] 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

[4] Ibid, pp. 204-5

[5] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 250

[6] Ibid, p. 251

[7] O’Malley, p. 205

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

[9] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 238-9

[10] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 46

[11] Irish Times, 29/04/1922

[12] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741), Part II, pp. 46-9

[13] Derry Journal, 12/05/1922

[14] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 275

[15] Glennon, Kieran. From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Gennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 151

[16] Derry Journal, 27/03/1922

[17] Ibid, 03/04/1922

[18] O’Donoghue, pp. 49-52

[19] Ibid, pp. 52-3

[20] Ibid, pp. 53-4

[21] Ibid, pp. 54-6

[22] Derry Journal, 05/05/1922

[23] O’Donoghue, p. 7

[24] Ibid, pp. 56-7

[25] Ibid, pp. 57-8

[26] Derry Journal, 08/05/1922

[27] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[28] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[29] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[30] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[31] O’Donoghue, pp. 61-4, 66

[32] Derry Journal, 29/05/1922

Bibliography

Books

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

Glennon, Kieran. From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

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

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

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)

Newspapers

Derry Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military Statement

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Book Review: Judging Redmond and Carson, by Alvin Jackson (2018)

redmond_and_carson_small_low_resDo personalities shape politics or does the political world move with a will of its own? Can individuals determine the fate of nations or are even the most powerful of statesmen doomed to be swept up by events? These are the central questions of this book, as historian Alvin Jackson looks at two men, John Redmond and Edward Carson, of very different natures, who stood on opposite sides at the heart of one of the most turbulent periods in Anglo-Irish history.

An interview each with Lord Kitchener on the eve of the Great War in 1914 best exemplified their contrasting styles. Both Carson and Redmond had placed the militias under their influence – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers respectively – at the behest of the War Office in return for certain concessions. Such horse-trading stuck in the craw of the martinet Kitchener who, as the Secretary of State for War, lost no time in attempting to cut the uppity Irishmen down to size.

“If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond, I should have knocked your heads together,” Kitchener told Carson.

“I’d like to see you try,” replied the other. This was delivered, according to one account, “in a slow drawling way, but with such a look as made Kitchener instantly change his tone.”

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John Redmond

Redmond, on the other hand, chose to stand on his wounded dignity. He had been, as he wrote to the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, after his own bruising encounter with Kitchener, “rather disquieted” by it. Nothing stronger was done or said.

Perhaps not coincidently, it was decided that the Ulster Volunteer Force could keep its identity within a separate army division. No such allowance was made for the Irish Volunteers.

But then, not rocking the boat had defined Redmond’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ever since his election as a compromise candidate. It had been a turbulent decade for Nationalist Ireland in the wake of the Parnell Split of 1890, and it was thus fitting that the reunion of the IPP factions be conducted in as acrimonious manner as possible. As summed up by Jackson, Redmond’s elevation was decided by the Party bigwigs narrowing down to who was despised the least:

Tim Healy, believing that [John] Dillon preferred T.C. Harrington, and hating Dillon more than Redmond, had conspired to deliver the latter’s victory in 1900, while at the same time fully expecting him to lose: he regarded Redmond’s final election as simply a ‘fluke’, partly because at the last minute and unexpectedly, William O’Brien had intervened to offer his backing.

Redmond never forgot the tenuity of his authority, nor the underlying tensions it guarded over. “My chief anxiety ever since I have been Chairman of the Irish Party has been to preserve its unity,” he said – more than seven years later. Even an admirer of Redmond’s “impressive manner” could not help but wince at his “non-committal introductory address, which gave him a loophole of escape in every sentence.”

Following in the footsteps of Charles Parnell as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was always going to be a tall order, but Redmond never really tried. When he described himself as the “servant of the Irish Party…I have never attempted in the smallest manner to impose my will upon the will of the Irish Party,” he was that rarest of creatures – an honest politician.

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Edward Carson

Honed by years of bare-knuckle courtroom drama, where he had excelled as a barrister, Carson presented a very different political beast. For one, unlike Redmond, he was not afraid to bite the hand that fed him. As MP for Dublin University (Trinity College), Carson took the lead in opposing the reforms of the Irish Land Bill of 1896, acting on behalf of his conservatively-minded constituents.

This was despite the fact that the bill was the brainchild of the brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour. The latter, as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1887 to 1891, had pushed for Carson’s advancement in the legal profession and then later his election to MP. Balfour was all too aware of this twisted turn of events, as he complained plaintively in the wake of a tongue-lashing from his former protégé:

Carson was the aggressor and made an entirely unprovoked attack. He had a perfect right to forget that I had promoted him above the heads of all his seniors to the highest place at the Irish bar, and that I had strained my influence…with Trinity College Dublin to get them, for the first time in their history, to elect as their representative one who then called himself a Liberal…But he had not the right to forget that we belonged to the same party and that as colleagues under most difficult and anxious circumstances we had fought side-by-side in many a doubtful battle.

For Carson, it was a case of putting principle before party, with personal friendships taking second place to whatever cause for which he was advocate.

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H.H. Asquith

Such prioritising made him a most mercurial ally. After serving a mere five months as attorney general in Asquith’s wartime government, he resigned in October 1915 and and became an implacable opponent to the Prime Minister, pursuing him with the same doggedness he displayed in a courtroom until Asquith’s resignation at the end of 1916, a move largely accredited by Westminster insiders to Carson.

If Redmond lacked such a killer instinct, he compensated with an even temperament that allowed him to manage the complex and far-ranging responsibilities as IPP chairman. “Patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable to the necessary anger – he held together, from a position of weakness, this great national enterprise, and brought it to the cusp of victory in 1914,” Jackson writes.

Carson, in contrast, was on unsteady ground when not on the offensive. Having orchestrated Asquith’s fall and his replacement by David Lloyd George, Carson was promoted by the new prime minister to the Admiralty, a role in which he proved to be – so to speak – lost at sea.

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David Lloyd George

German submarines were reaping a devastating toll on British shipping, yet Carson had no ideas to offer a dispirited navy. It took a vigorous intervention by Lloyd George in August 1917, when he harangued the Admiralty Board from – tellingly enough – Carson’s seat at the table, to kick-start a more proactive policy. Carson was soon shuffled off to a harmless post elsewhere.

Jackson takes a surgical approach to his material, prising open the public personae of Carson and Redmond to find the complexities and contradictions beneath. At times he seems to enjoy teasing the boundaries of what we know – or think we do – about the two men. “Would a Carsonite leadership of the Irish Party have produced a different fate for constitutional nationalism?” he asks. “Would a more senatorial and oritund command of Ulster unionism have sustained a militant defiance of the British Government?” The pair, Jackson suggests, each had the right abilities for the wrong position.

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Political cartoon of Redmond and Carson

On a lighter note are the range of documents and memorandum on display here. They vary from satirical cartoon and political posters, to a postcard featuring Redmond’s pensive visage on one side and on the other a written comment from an appreciative – and apparently Unionist – woman: “Is not this photo nice. Though of wrong party, I would like to elope with him.”

Publisher’s Website: Royal Irish Academy

A Death in Athlone: The Controversial Case of George Adamson, April 1922

Knowing

In the dark, early hours of the 25th April 1922, tensions that had been simmering for weeks in the town of Athlone, Co. Westmeath, spilled over into bloodshed. Soon afterwards, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the pro-Treaty military issued its report on the shocking event:

Shortly after midnight on Monday a party of officers left Custume Barracks, Athlone, and proceeded down the town to the Royal Hotel, outside of which they commandeered a motor car. When the party returned to the military barracks it was discovered that one officer was missing.[1]

A search party of four was sent out to find their errant comrade, sometime around 2 am. As they walked towards the Irishtown area of Athlone, they came across a man loitering in a shop doorway.

“Who are you?” asked one of the search party, Brigadier-General George Adamson.

“I know you, George. You know me, Adamson,” came the cryptic reply. Not satisfied, the officers demanded the stranger to put his hands up. When he remained as he was, Adamson levelled a revolver on him.

Suddenly there was a rush and the search party found themselves confronted in turn by a rival group of armed men. When they were disarmed – so read the GHQ report – the man in the doorway drew a revolver of his own and fired point blank through Adamson’s ear, into his head.[2]

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George Adamson (left) with two fellow officers in the Free State Army

Standing

However dreadful, the incident was not altogether surprising. It might even be said that something of its nature was inevitable, given the state of the country.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed five months earlier, in December 1921, by the British Government and the plenipotentiaries of Dáil Éireann had seen the end of one war and the stirrings of another. The country was instantly divided on the question of whether or not to accept such terms, a situation heightened rather than mollified when the Dáil narrowly voted to do so in January 1922.

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Irish delegates at the signing of the Treaty in London, December 1921

Nowhere were the divisions more keenly – or dangerously – felt than in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Before they had been united as brothers-in-arms against the might of the foreign oppressor. Now the enemy had agreed to a peace deal that few had expected, and not all wanted, as the insistence on the oath to the Crown made many think that the cure for their country was no better than the disease. With the British Army set to depart for good, each IRA man was left, not so much to savour the victory but to wonder where they stood in the new and uncertain situation.

Not that things worsened immediately. It took time for them to deteriorate to the point where a man would be shot in the head on the streets of Athlone. In the first few months after the Treaty, there was still chances to stand together. On the 28th January 1922, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Midland IRA Division mustered openly for the first time since its inception. About eight hundred men assembled outside Athlone, much to the admiration of a journalist who commented about how:

Of fine physique and displaying efficient military training, the men made the most imposing spectacle as they marched through the town, headed by the Athlone brass band.

Thousands of spectators lined the pavements, including members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who appeared greatly impressed at the display of the same men they had been trying to arrest months before.

The policemen might as well be graceful losers. ‘WHAT A CHANGE!’ read the headline of a local newspaper as it reported that it was the Athlone IRA Brigade who now granted permission to possess firearms, such as to an officer in the British garrison for a fowling piece. Policing patrols were being conducted jointly by the RIC and the IRA, but for the former this were to last only until its disbandment as per the terms of the Treaty.[3]

After all the violence, it looked to be an orderly transfer of authority, which some might have thought boded well for the future.

Remembering

As well as looking to the future, the men of the IRA found time to pay respects to the past. On the 6th February 1922, a Celtic cross was erected at Cornafulla, near Athlone, to the memory of James Tormey, killed almost a year before at that same site. Unveiling the monument was George Adamson in what must have been a poignant occasion for him, considering that he had been present at Tormey’s death.[4]

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The James Tormey Memorial at Cornafulla

Tormey had ordered a mobilisation of the local IRA unit with the intent of ambushing a Black-and-Tan patrol as they cycled by Cornafulla. As soon as the group of Tans came into sight on the 2nd February 1921, Tormey recklessly opened fire before the rest of the ambush party, which included Adamson, were ready.

The Tans instantly dismounted from their bicycles and shot back, forcing the IRA to beat a hasty retreat. Tormey was covering the escape when a Tan crept into a lane at a right angle from the main road, outflanking Tormey and shooting him in the head before he could react.

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RIC patrol on bicycles

In the confusion, and perhaps fearing another ambush, the Tans had cycled away, leaving Tormey’s body where it lay. Adamson and the others had managed to escape and later, under the cover of night, they removed the corpse by boat down the Shannon and buried it in secret. That was not the end of the matter, as the cadaver was dug up soon afterwards by Tans who took it to Athlone where Tormey’s father identified his son. Only then was the body allowed to rest in the family plot in Mount Temple.[5]

In time, Adamson’s own remains were buried there besides Tormey’s. “Sad to relate,” wrote an old comrade of theirs in later years, “their graves are grossly neglected, being covered with weeds and dirt. There is no monument or anything to mark the place.”[6]capture

Escaping

As patrols and searches by Crown forces increased, death was never far away. The Athlone IRA had become a victim of its own success, for the string of ambushes inflicted in the latter half of 1920 had stirred the British garrison into a vigorous response. Adamson would have a brush with mortality in March 1921 when he and another man, Gerald Davis, set out on a mission of their own.

Davis had arrived from Dublin at the behest of GHQ to help organise the Athlone IRA. He made the acquaintance of Adamson, then the Vice O/C of the Brigade, who impressed Davis as being “a fine type of man, well built, a good athlete and a very good fellow all round.”

The Brigade was in not such good shape, its members having scattered to avoid the attentions of the British authorities. Still, David was game and in Adamson he found a kindred soul. When they received word of two Tans who were in the company of a pair of local women, Davis and Adamson set out with revolvers to the farmhouse outside Athlone where the women lived.

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Black-and-Tans

They found one of the Tans in the yard and quickly disarmed him. Adamson stood guard over their captive – the intent being to rob them of arms rather than to kill – while Davis went in search of the other. When he found him hiding behind a clamp of turf, the Tan shot at him before making a break. David fired after the fleeing man, grazing his thigh but nothing more, the mismatched ammo in his Colt pistol rendering its aim difficult.

Davis doubled back at the sound of Adamson shouting to find that the prisoner had turned the tables and pinned Adamson to the ground. A big man, the Tan had wrestled the gun off his former captor and used it to shoot Adamson in the chest. Davis shot the Tan in the side, wounding him, just in time for the second foe to return.

Davis had by then been wounded as well, in the arm though he did not seem aware of when he had been hit. He fired at the second Tan to keep him back and then helped the bleeding Adamson to his feet. They both fled at this point, their plan in tatters. Adamson had lost his revolver in the tussle and they had failed to rob the Tans of theirs as intended, but at least they were alive, if barely in Adamson’s case.

They retreated across the Shannon to a friendly house where Adamson was treated for his chest wound. Davis’ arm went septic for a while but he recovered, as did Adamson who remained at large by the time the Truce came in July 1921. Davis was not so lucky, having been arrested in a British round-up and then – to add insult to injury – identified by one of the Tans he and Adamson had tried to mug.[7]

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Black-and-Tans hold up a suspect

It was all part of the trials and tribulations of running an insurgency but, with the signing of the Treaty, the war was done and the worst over. At least, that is what Adamson and his peers could have been forgiven for thinking.

Dividing

Colonel Anthony Lawlor’s first thought on the Treaty had been “we can’t touch that.” It did not give Ireland enough in his opinion, and Lawlor feared that the people would be content with that and go no further towards complete independence. Lawlor would be denied the luxury of such long-term thinking when Patrick Morrissey, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, stalked into his office in the Athlone Military Barracks that was also the base for the IRA Midlands Division.

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Front gates to Custume Barracks, Athlone

Their commanding officer, Major-General Seán Mac Eoin, was away in Dublin, leaving Lawlor in charge. Dublin was also where Morrissey had just returned from, a forbidden visit that had marked the man with a new – and, as far as Lawlor was concerned, an unpleasantly defiant – demeanour as he stood before Lawlor, legs wide apart and a revolver protruding above his belt, having not bothered to salute him.

“We’ve decided to stand by the Republic,” Morrissey told him, according to Lawlor’s recollections.

“We’re all standing by the Republic,” Lawlor insisted.

You’re not,” Morrissey shot back.

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Richard Mulcahy

However dismayed, could not have been hugely surprised, for the controversial IRA Convention had taken place the previous day, on the 28th March 1922, at the Mansion House in Dublin. It had been promised by the Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy, on behalf of the IRA GHQ as a way of settling the differences fostered by the Treaty. Mulcahy had then pulled a volte-face and banned attendance on threat of dismissal.

That so many IRA members, including some from the Athlone Brigade such as Morrissey, could be found in the Mansion House on the day, regardless of what had been ordered, did not bode well for the GHQ’s continued authority.

Reasserting

At that moment in Athlone Barracks, it was Lawlor’s own authority that he had to worry about. He stood up, thinking quickly, and told Morrissey to summon the men onto the parade ground. When they were assembled, Lawlor played the part of the army drill-sergeant.

“I blackguarded them,” he recalled. “Told them they were the worst looking crowd I’d ever seen, and that if they were going to fight for a Republic none of them was likely to accomplish very much.”

Lawlor began to drill them, an unexpected move that put him back in charge. He told them to stack their weapons in the armoury and gave them a five minute respite. When he called them again to the parade ground, he made sure they were well away from their arms, which were being stored surreptitiously away by those officers who had remained loyal to GHQ.

All the while, Lawlor carried a pistol in each hand and warned his men that he would shoot if they so much as challenged him. He did not dare not shoot, he told them candidly, if he wanted to continue in his command.

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Seán Mac Eoin

This was enough to overawe the men but not indefinitely. When the men realised they had been gulled, they clamoured to reclaim their stolen weapons. Mac Eoin returned to the Barracks to find near pandemonium as Lawlor and his handful of partisans, including Adamson, stood in a thin line between the armoury and their own enraged men.

While Lawlor had been subtle, Mac Eoin was direct. After calling the men into line, he challenged Morrissey, standing at the front of the ranks, if he was prepared to follow the orders of the Dáil.

Morrissey tried hedging, saying no but that he would still obey any that came from Mac Eoin. For Mac Eoin, this was not good enough, pointing out that he had no authority save what the Dáil granted him. When Morrissey refused to budge, Mac Eoin ripped his Sam Browne belt off him, swung him around and shoved him out through the Barracks’ door. Mac Eoin proceeded down the ranks, meting out the same rough treatment to all else who refused to toe the line.

“That was not in any code that I know,” Mac Eoin later admitted, “but it was an effective method of dealing with the situation.”[8]

Reassembling

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Royal Hotel, Athlone

Effective – up to a point. Banishing the dissenting officers was one thing, making them disappear quite another, as shown when they retreated to the Royal Hotel in Marydyke Street, Athlone. There, Morrissey addressed his compatriots from a window, appealing to them to not say or do anything that would shame the name of the Athlone Brigade.

To nip things in the bud, Mac Eoin issued a proclamation to the tradesmen of Athlone. All costs contracted by the IRA up to and including the 25th March would be honoured, after which he would not be responsible for any more unless a written order was presented, signed by his Divisional Quartermaster.

“I accept no liability for any Brigade order owing to the suspension of the Brigade,” Mac Eoin warned.

Lawlor clarified this in an interview with a local newspaper on the 4th April. He explained that certain officers of the Athlone Brigade had repudiated the authority of the Dáil, the IRA GHQ and Mac Eoin. Therefore, these malcontents had been suspended. The Athlone Brigade would continue under the authority of Brigadier Adamson, promoted from Vice O/C to acting commander. All further officers who refused to obey the orders from their lawful superiors were to be regarded no longer as soldiers but civilians.[9]

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IRA members

But Lawlor was trying to shut the door to a half-empty stable. Two days earlier, Morrissey had led six hundred men from the Athone Brigade in officially breaking ties with their pro-Treaty colleagues. He announced to the parade of men that he had received word from the IRA Executive, formed from the Anti-Treatyite leaders at the March Convention, to reaffirm their allegiance to the Republic.

The men uncovered their heads and stood with raised hands as Morrissey administrated the oath of loyalty to them. Afterwards, Morrissey again impressed upon them the importance of discipline, and specifically not to interfere with the men on the other side.

An incident on that same day hinted at how matters were escalating beyond words and proclamations. Sergeant-Major Shields had left the Barracks – renamed the Custume Barracks in honour of the 17th century defender of Athlone – seemingly as a deserter. When two pro-Treaty officers stopped him in the street, Shields made a grab for the revolver of one before attempting to run and received a warning to stop, followed by a bullet to the leg when he did not.

Despite the drama, Shields did not seem to belong to either faction, as evidenced by the lack of reaction. A certain kind of peace was allowed to continue for the next six days.[10]

Clearing

On the evening of the 8th April, Mac Eoin entered the Royal Hotel, now the full-time base of the anti-Treaty IRA in Athlone. Morrissey was absent, leaving McGlynn, the acting commander present, to be told by Mac Eoin that he and his men were to depart by 9 am the next day. Shortly afterwards, a priest, Father Columba, also visited the hotel and advised the men there to comply.

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IRA members

Morning came to find the Anti-Treatyites still defiantly inside. Colonel Lawlor made his way towards the hotel shortly before 2 pm, meeting McGlynn on the way. When McGlynn again declined to vacate, he was arrested and taken to Custume Barracks. Lawlor repeated the demand to the next acting commander in the hotel, Captain Hughes, who likewise refused.

A quarter of an hour later, Lawlor had summoned enough of his soldiers to surround the Royal Hotel, complete with machine-guns. The garrison remained where they were behind the barricaded windows and sang The Soldier’s Song, the unofficial anthem of the revolution since its early years.

Conflict seemed imminent and all civilians nearby hurriedly made themselves scarce. Another priest, Father James, appeared on the scene to appeal for calm for the sake of the women and children in the surrounding houses. This managed to bring the leaders of the respective sides together and, after some discussion, it was agreed that the Anti-Treatyites would indeed leave the Royal Hotel by 5 pm that day. They could take their equipment with them and McGlynn would be released.

With that, the Pro-Treatyites withdrew to their Barracks. The other faction was as good as its word. At the designated time, about fifty men could be seen leaving the hotel, marching – according to a local newspaper – “good-humouredly away.”[11]

Returning

Even if genuine, the good humour did not last long.

On the 11th April, the anti-Treaty IRA returned to reoccupy the Royal Hotel, along with a grocery store that lay directly opposite, as well rooms over a bakery on the same street. Barricades were quickly erected in the windows of these buildings, with armed guards seen behind them by the inhabitants of Mardyke Street, many of whom swiftly fled for fear of an imminent battle.

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Marydyke Street, Athlone

Their concerns appeared well-founded when Mac Eoin arrived with a force of his own men from Custume Barracks, who occupied in turn a shop and a residence on Mardyke Street, as well as a store on the adjacent Dublin Street, after which they set up barricades of their own.

War seemed inevitable until four priests – including Father James from before – intervened and induced Mac Eoin and his opposing counterpart, Commandant-General Seán Fitzpatrick, to meet. After a short exchange, an adjournment for an hour was agreed upon.

During this lull, the priests requested all public-houses to close. “Business was at a stand-still, and the people moved about in suspense,” reported the Irish Times.

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IRA members

As a result of a subsequent meeting between the two leaders, conflict was again averted, much to the relief of the citizens. For the past few days, they had been helpless witnesses to the manoeuvrings and military brinkmanship conducted in their own town.

The Anti-Treatyites were to stay in Athlone, based once more in the Royal Hotel, and there the situation remained until fourteen days later, on the night of the 25th April, when a hapless George Adamson was shot in the head.[12]

Confronting

Mac Eoin was the first to arrive on the scene. At the inquest in Athlone the next day, Mac Eoin told of what he had seen and done that night.

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A pensive Seán Mac Eoin stares out of a window in Sligo, 1922

He had returned from Tralee, Co. Kerry, the previous evening, and was staying at the house of a friend, Mr Duffy, when he heard four shots that sounded as if they had come from directly outside. Springing out of bed, Mac Eoin whipped up the revolver from where he had left it on a table and dashed to the window. Leaning out, he heard the sounds of running footsteps and saw a man in a laneway opposite the house.

Mac Eoin called out: “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Friend,” came the odd reply, perhaps made just to avoid being shot at.

From where he was, Mac Eoin thought he could make out in the dark the object on the ground outside. As he did so, someone shouted: “A man is dying on the street!”

Throwing on some clothes, Mac Eoin rushed out to find Adamson on his back, blood pouring out of his ear. Mac Eoin raised him up in his arms and sent Duffy, who had come out to assist, for a doctor and a priest, the last a sober acknowledgement of Adamson’s chances. A strong man, Mac Eoin carried the victim inside, before heading off towards the Royal Hotel.

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Athlone

On the way, he met Duffy and Father Columba, one of the four priests who had helped arrange the truce – for what it was worth – a fortnight ago. Duffy told him of how he had been held up on the street by masked men while looking for the priest.

That made Mac Eoin all the more determined to reach the Royal Hotel, where he found several Anti-Treatyites, including Commandant-General Fitzpatrick from before. Mac Eoin asked Fitzpatrick if all his men were inside and accounted for. When Fitzpatrick replied in the affirmative, Mac Eoin retorted that there was no use spouting such falsehoods. George Adamson had been murdered, Mac Eoin said, and demanded to know what Fitzpatrick knew of it.

Fitzpatrick, according to Mac Eoin’s testimony, replied: “Be straight with me and I will be straight with you. Four men arrived here tonight, and were talking business with me. They went out and returned, saying that their car was gone, and went out again in less than ten minute afterwards. I heard shouting.”

Fitzpatrick added that he did not know the names of these four. One of the other Anti-Treatyites present piped up to say that he did not know the men either, only that they appeared to be acquainted with Captain Macken, who had ordered that they be admitted in the first place

For his part, Macken said that he only knew one of them, this being a Commandant Burke, which was not a name that meant anything to Mac Eoin.

Also present was Gerald Davis, Adamson’s partner in the botched robbery on the Tans. Upon release from prison as per the terms of the Truce, Davis had re-joined the Athlone Brigade, taking the opposite side to Adamson on the Treaty question. When asked in turn, Davis admitted to knowing the foursome but refused to divulge their names.[13]

Arresting

The news of the shooting seems to have rattled Fitzpatrick as much as enraged Mac Eoin. After Mac Eoin departed from the hotel, Fitzpatrick came to a decision and dispatched a message after the other man to inform him of it:

In view of the attitude which you adopt as a consequence of the regrettable shooting which occurred some hours ago, I have, after consultation with my officers, and with a view of avoiding bloodshed, decided on leaving the Royal Hotel, and taking up quarters elsewhere.

I repeat that the responsibility for the shooting rests not with me. I sincerely regret the occurrence.

Mac Eoin was not mollified. At 6 am, his Pro-Treatyites surrounded the hotel, with Mac Eoin issuing an ultimatum to Fitzpatrick inside:

I hereby charge you and all officers and men in the Royal Hotel with unlawfully conspiring with a commandant and others, unknown, to slay and murder Brigadier-General Adamson, O.C., Athlone Brigade, IRA.

I further charge the Commandant mentioned, and others known to you, with the murder of the above named officer. I hereby call on you to surrender all men and officers in the Royal Hotel on receipt of this, allowing 15 minutes for reply of surrender, and after the expiration of that time I [will] open fire, and do so as the lawful authority, charged with the peace of the district.

Knowing he was beaten, Fitzpatrick wrote back:

In reply to your demand, I have no choice but to surrender. I must assert that I am not in any way responsible for the shooting.

Fitzpatrick’s attempt to retreat with dignity intact had been coldly denied. He bowed to the inevitable and surrendered, being led away with his men to detainment inside Custume Barracks.[14]

Mourning

Adamson died a few hours after being shot, by which time a crowd had gathered outside his hospital to pray for his recovery. The lowering of the tricolour over Athlone Castle was enough to break the news to them and the rest of the town, where he had been known and well-liked.

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Athlone Castle

The 25-year-old native of Moate, Co. Westmeath, had had a brief but eventful life. Previous to his service in the Athlone IRA, he had fought during the Great War, earning a Mons Star and a Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous bravery. That this had been part of the same British Army he would later oppose was one of the many ironies of the period, as was the grim fact that his end had come not at German or British hands, but that of his fellow countrymen.

Fittingly, IRA members and ex-servicemen from the British Army were among the ten thousand-strong crowd who attended the funeral two days later. All business was suspended in Athlone and Moate, with shops closed and window blinds drawn, as the guards of honour, in full uniform and holding their rifles reversed, accompanied the tricoloured-draped coffin as it was carried through the streets of Athlone on the shoulders of Adamson’s colleagues.

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Adamson’s funeral procession moving through Athlone

Mac Eoin in particular was hit hard by the killing. Among the speakers at the funeral, he was “visibly affected,” according to a local newspaper, as he “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”[15]

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Harry Boland

At the next session of the Dáil in Dublin on the 26th April 1922, President Arthur Griffith spoke of the “foully murdered” Adamson, who “died for his country as truly as any man ever died for it.” When Harry Boland was unwise enough to refer to “unfortunate business in Athlone”, the pro-Treaty benches reacted like a scalded cat.

“Surely, by goodness, it has not come to this, that the shooting of a man is to be treated as ‘business’,” lambasted W.T. Cosgrave. “The Deputy, who may have made it in the heat of the moment, has now time to alter it.”

“Of course I did not mean to suggest that murder is a business,” Boland said hastily.

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W.T. Cosgrave

But Cosgrave was merciless: “’Unfortunate business’ is what you said.”

“’The unfortunate death of a soldier in Athlone’,” Boland amended, backtracking in full.

“That is better,” Cosgrave allowed. “A little bit better.”[16]

Inquiring

At the inquest in Athlone on the 26th April, the day after the shooting, the jury had some choice things to say, not least about the state of the country in general:

We desire to express our abhorrence of this and other un-Irish acts, now of too common occurrence, and while trying to be impartial, we desire to protest against the robberies, raids, stealing from trains, and stealing of motor cars in this district, and we call on the authorities to put it down at once.

J.H. Dixon, the solicitor for the pro-Treaty military authorities, expressed, on his own behalf and for the people of Athlone, sympathy for Adamson’s father, who was present with other relatives. Seán Mac Eoin seconded this, adding that the late Brigadier-General had been a man the Army was proud to have had. His family did not need to be assured of the sympathy of the Army, for they had full evidence of it already. As further proof of Adamson’s valour, his father was handed the four medals he had won for distinguished service in the Great War.

After Mac Eoin had testified to what he had seen that night, it was the turn of Dr MacDonnell. He told of how he had found the victim unconscious in Mr Duffy’s house, where Mac Eoin had brought him. Together with a second doctor to arrive, they had plugged the large wound in the left ear. With some effort, they succeeded in partly reviving Adamson, who managed to utter a request to be taken home. After bandaging his head, the doctors helped their patient to the barracks.

Next up on the stand was the military surgeon. He had examined the body that morning, and told of how he had found two wounds, an entrance wound high up on the back of the head, the other an exit wound in the left ear. In his opinion, death had been due to shock, haemorrhage and compression of the brain.

An eyewitness to the shooting, Lieutenant O’Meara, reiterated much of what had already been reported. He had been one of the four-strong party who went out that night with Adamson. When they returned to their barracks, two of their number were noticed to be missing. It was while searching for them in Athlone that they spied a man in a doorway.

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George Adamson

When Adamson challenged the stranger, while ordering Lieutenant Walsh to cover him with a revolver, the man had merely said: “It is all right, George, I know you, and you know me,” adding, “you are George Adamson, and you know something about the car that is gone.”

Eight others suddenly appeared, shouting: “Hands up! We mean it, George. Put up your hands!”

After the four Pro-Treatyites were disarmed, O’Meara heard several shots ring out, followed by the sight of Adamson crumpling to the ground.

The coroner for Co. Westmeath concluded from the hearing that this had been an act of murder, pure and simple. He left the matter with the jury, who returned to deliver the same verdict as the coroner. Which was reasonable enough – it did not seem like a complicated case, after all.[17]

Replying

It was a sign of the times that the official report would so casually, almost innocently, mention officers of its own army engaging in car theft, a detail honed in by Thomas Johnson, Secretary of the Labour Party, in a letter sent on the 27th April to the press.

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Thomas Johnson

“By what authority have military officers commandeered a motor car outside a hotel?” Johnson demanded. “Does this not indicate a state of mind alien to the conception of civil law?”

The stolen vehicle would play a larger role in the statement released by the Four Courts, the base of operations for the anti-Treaty IRA leadership, and written by Timothy Buckley, Quartermaster of the Third Southern Division (encompassing Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary). Buckley had been present that night in Athlone and so was able to give the Anti-Treatyites’ version of events:

On the night of the 24th inst., I, with the Commandant [Tom Burke], Adjutant [Joseph Reddin], and Q.M. [Seán Robbins] of Offaly, No. 2 Brigade, motored to Athlone to see Commandant General Fitzpatrick, re transfer of arms.

While engaged with him in his quarters, our motor was stolen from where we had it outside the door. We followed in the direction in which we believed the car had been taken, but could not find the party who took the car.

The men heard their vehicle being driven through a backstreet, towards the Custume Barracks. As the military compound was in Pro-Treatyite hands, they knew they would not be retrieving their car anytime soon. For lack of other options, the four stranded men proceeded into town to find another car to hire for their return journey to Birr, Co. Offaly.

But the theft was not to be the end of that night’s drama for them:

We called up a Mr. Poole in the adjoining street, and were just asking for one of his cars when the Q.M. [Robbins], Offaly, No. 2, was held up about ten yards from where Commandant Burke and I were standing.

In the brief scuffle, Robbins was able to disarm two of his assailants. As Reddin and Burke came to his assistance, the other men ran away, with only one of them stubbornly holding his ground with his hands in his pocket. Burke was confronting this man, who they later learnt was Adamson, when they were abruptly fired upon from the other side of the street.

In the dark, Buckley could not see who the shooter was. He fired back twice with his automatic, and the mystery gunman ran off, pausing only to fire several more times at them from further up the street.

Such was the confusion that Buckley was not sure what was going on, only that he saw Adamson suddenly collapse in the middle of the street. With the shooter now gone, the four Anti-Treatyites rushed to the fallen man’s aid.

We took him off the street and tried to get him to sit upright, but we saw and believed that he was almost beyond human aid. In order to give his friends a chance of helping him, we left the street in their possession, left the town on foot and walked as far as our Divisional area.

“The death of Commandant Adamson is very much regretted,” Commandant Burke added in a brief footnote to Buckley’s statement, as he stressed his group’s lack of complicity.[18]

Brooding

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Noel Browne

One of the residents of Athlone was the future politician, Dr Noel Browne. Then six years of age, he was woken by his father, who urged his children to lie flat on the floor. From outside came the sounds of gunfire, mixed with those of running feet. A voice shouted out “don’t shoot!”, though Browne was unsure as to whether that particular auditory detail had actually occured or if he only imagined it.

But the blood on the street the next morning was real enough, dried and black and still visible despite the efforts to hide it with a potato sack. The memory of “this awful example of a man’s unique capacity to kill cruelly a fellow man” stayed with Browne. In 1948, twenty-six years afterwards, he met Mac Eoin, both now ministers in the Inter-Party Government. Browne told him about that night in Athlone, when he had first heard the older man’s voice outside his bedroom window. The two became friends as well as co-workers, with Browne thinking Mac Eoin, then in his fifties, a “gentle peaceful man.”[19]

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Cabinet of the Inter-Party Government, 1948, with Noel Brown (far left, front row) and Seán Mac Eoin (standing, second from the right)

Time had perhaps mellowed the old warrior. Mac Eoin would emerge from that fateful night a changed soul. Before, he had been noted for his chivalry, such as when he had spared Auxiliaries captured at the Granard Ambush of February 1921, going so far as to have the wounded tended to. The Mac Eoin after Adamson’s death was a harder, colder character, with no patience now for talk of peace and compromise.

When the Dáil met the next month in May 1922 to discuss a possible ceasefire between the increasingly fractious IRA sects, his was the dissenting voice as he expressed incredulity that things could be resolved so amiably. Instead, he called for a tougher line on those he saw as the villains of the piece.

“Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences,” he lectured the other TDs. “Justice demands that certain things be done.”[20]

Soon afterwards in September, with the Civil War in full swing, Mac Eoin told the Dáil that: “If I was sure of the man who murdered General Adamson, and if I met him on the street, I would shoot him.”

This was said as part of the proposal to establish army courts to deal with the anti-Treaty prisoners. Once again, Thomas Johnson acted as the closest thing the Dáil had to an opposition leader as he pushed for these courts to be headed by a legal professional, instead of being purely military in nature. To Mac Eoin, however, only a soldier could appreciate the situation of another.

“The reason I would shoot him then,” he continued, “was because there was no law but the law that was vested in me as the Competent Authority of the area. Pass the law that is now asked, and there would be no necessity for me to shoot him, because there would be a legal method of dealing with that individual.”[21]

Later that session, he dismissed the idea that an armistice could be arranged. “It will be the same as the last truce,” he warned, having learnt the limits of patience. “It will be all one-sided, and you cannot have that.”[22]

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Seán Mac Eoin (seated, second from left in the front row) with a number of his officers, including George Adamson (second from left back row), in a photograph taken at Athlone Castle, February 1922

Even years afterwards, Mac Eoin never wavered in his belief that Adamson’s death had been cold-blooded murder. When he wrote to the Pensions Board in 1929 on behalf of Adamson’s mother to urge for financial assistance, he told of how and why her son had met his end: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”[23]

Blaming

Some on the anti-Treaty side nursed their own theories.

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Uiseann MacEoin

Liam Carroll was among those Anti-Treatyites present in Athlone that night, along with five others inside Claxton’s Hotel. When they heard shots outside, they quickly hurried out of town by foot, leaving their car behind in their haste to avoid trouble. Such was the confusion that Carroll was able to return the next day and retrieve their vehicle, which had been left untouched. He had not witnessed what happened, but later told the historian Uinseann MacEoin (no relation to Seán Mac Eoin) how “Republicans believe [the shooting] was done by one of [Mac Eoin’s] bodyguards.”[24]

Another Anti-Treatyite who had been stationed in the area, Walter Mitchell, went further, suggesting to Uinseann MacEoin that it had been Seán Mac Eoin himself who had been responsible. As for the possible reasons why, Mac Eoin was jealous of the other man, “being good in an ordinary scrap, [but] he was completely uneducated”, while Adamson “had far more military science.”

In contrast, Mitchell believed that “no Republican would set out to slay George Adamson.” After all, the Adamson Mitchell remembered had been a “fine soldier, hot-tempered and all that, but he was able to handle men well, including parade formation on the barrack square.” Still, Mitchell appeared less aggrieved at his slaying and more about how the Pro-Treatyites had exploited it for sympathy purposes.[25]

Deciding

Meeting such accusations head on fuelled Mac Eoin at the second inquiry, held on the 25th May, at the Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, site of the National University. Unlike the first inquiry, which had been dominated by the Pro-Treatyites, this one consisted of attendees from both sides. To stave off further violence, a truce had been signed by the military heads of each IRA faction and, for a while, a spirit of reconciliation pervaded the country, with fraternal ties tentatively renewed and even talk of the two sundered wings reuniting.

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Newman House, Dublin

But Mac Eoin was in a far from obliging mood when he took the stand inside the Newman House. Dismissing the rumour that he had been the one responsible for Adamson’s shooting as a mere “propaganda stunt”, he argued for the impossibility of such a notion on the grounds that “you cannot shoot unless you fire. You cannot kill unless you fire. My revolver is as full now as it was that day. There is none out of it since.”

He retold his version of that night in Athlone, giving his audience the impression that Adamson had been anticipating something would happen – and that he and Mac Eoin had been unusually close for a commander and his subordinate. In court, Mac Eoin pointed to a ring he was wearing, and told how Adamson, while visiting him at Mr O’Duffy’s house, had taken the ring off his own finger and put it on Mac Eoin’s, saying: “Every time you look at that, think of me.”

Soon after, Mac Eoin continued, when he saw Adamson stricken in the street, he thought back on the ring and wondered if Adamson had had some information about an attempt to be made on his life. Instead of telling Mac Eoin about it, he had gone out to face it alone.

“I know that is not so,” added Mac Eoin on the stand, “but that is what appeared to me at that moment.”

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P.J. Ruttledge

Certain statements Mac Eoin had made to the press came under scrutiny when P.J. Ruttledge, the legal counsel for the anti-Treaty IRA, cross-examined him. If Mac Eoin had been in a righteously angry mood, then Ruttledge sought to match him, outrage by outrage.

Ruttledge: Are you aware that that has gone through three-quarters of the earth, blackguarding a force –?

Mac Eoin: It has just gone as far as the propaganda has gone that I shot him from the window. That statement is an answer to the other.

Ruttledge: You say a certain man did a certain thing. I want to know have you evidence on which to base that charge?

Mac Eoin: There will be evidence here on which to base that charge.

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Tom Hales

The atmosphere was sufficiently testy at one point for Tom Hales, the president of the court, to ask J. H. Dixon, again the solicitor for the Pro-Treatyites, to moderate his choice of words.

“I wish you would leave out the word ‘murder’ altogether,” Hales said.

“Very well, sir, ‘causing death’,” Dixon said, before adding: “Causing death is very obnoxious. At the same time, I think it will get down to a stage when we cannot have any fineness about words.”

Much of the inquiry was spent recapping the two different, and contradictory, versions of Adamson’s demise. The witnesses from the pro-Treaty forces had it that their late comrade had been callously gunned down, while those for the Anti-Treatyites insisted that his death had been the result of an alteration that spiralled out of control and where, given the confusion, it was impossible to determine culpability.[26]

When the court reassembled on the 1st June to announce its verdict, it showed it had decided on the more cautious interpretation:

We find that the much-regretted and tragic death of the late Brigadier Adamson, Athlone Brigade, Midland Division, I.R.A., resulted from a series of events on the night of the 25th April, accompanied by indiscretions on both sides.

Following the seizure of a car from the Executive Forces, I.R.A., at a late hour that resulted in a hold-up of a man who happened to be an officer of the [anti-Treaty] Forces. Concurrently his commander arrived on the scene, and the discharge of a single shot immediately brought about a burst of firing, in the course of which Brigadier Adamson was fatally wounded by some persons unknown.

The Court cannot determined from the evidence the responsibility for the discharge of the first shot, whether accidental or otherwise, but express the firm conviction that the shooting of Brigadier Adamson was not premeditated.[27]

Given the lack of hard evidence and conflicting viewpoints, there was perhaps little else the court could have said. George Adamson’s death remained, and continues to be so, a mystery.

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] Westmeath Examiner, 04/02/1922

[4] Ibid, 11/02/1922

[5] Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), pp. 10-1

[6] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), p. 47

[7] David, Gerald (BMH / WS 1361), pp. 12-4, 16

[8] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), pp. 241, 255-6

[9] Westmeath Examiner, 01/04/1922

[10] Irish Times, 04/04/1922

[11] Ibid, 11/04/1922

[12] Ibid, 12/04/1922

[13] Ibid, 27/04/1922

[14] Ibid, 26/04/1922

[15] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[16] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), pp. 235-6

[17] Irish Times, 27/04/1922

[18] Ibid, 28/04/1922

[19] Browne, Noel. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987), pp. 5-6

[20] Dáil Éireann, August 1921 – June 1922, p. 368

[21] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, September – December 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [Dublin]), p. 899

[22] Ibid, p. 947

[23] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[24] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 269-70

[25] Ibid, pp. 386-7

[26] Irish Times, 26/05/1922

[27] Ibid, 02/06/1922

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Times

Westmeath Examiner

Westmeath Guardian

Books

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, September – December 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

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

Browne, Noel. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987)

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Davis, Gerald, WS 1361

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)

 

Book Review: Out of the Ashes: An Oral History of the Provisional Irish Republican Movement, by Robert White (2017)

out-of-the-ashThe extraordinary thing about the people detailed in this book is how much they loathed each other. Distrust, intolerance, the splits that occurred with clockwork frequency, the resultant trauma lingering on for years on end – all from people ostensibly on the same side. “Great hatred, little room,” wrote W.B. Yeats of Ireland, and nowhere is that truer than here.

But then, perhaps it is an attitude inevitable among those who consider themselves at war, where trust and forbearance are not necessarily virtues. “I’m suspicious of everyone,” was how Ruairí Ó Brádaigh put it to the book’s author. Robert White had known him for almost twenty years but did not consider himself an exception. Considering Ó Brádaigh’s situation, White thought it a prudent measure.

As a senior member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) since its inception in 1969, Ó Brádaigh had seen much to be suspicious about. His overriding fear was that his beloved republican movement, the struggle for a united Ireland that he had committed his life to, would be neutered. As the PIRA approached its convention in 1986, the question on everyone’s mind was whether it should break with its tradition of abstentionism towards Dublin and allow its members in Sinn Féin to accept seats in the Dáil.

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Ruaíri Ó Brádaigh, addressing a rally in Dublin, 1976

To Ó Brádaigh, such a step would take them on a slippery slope to that most dreaded of outcomes – compromise.

“Parliament is a replacement for civil war. You talk it out instead of in the streets,” he said. In case anyone thought that a good thing, he added a caveat: “If you think you can keep one leg in the streets and the other leg in Parliament, you’ve a bloody awful mistake.”

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Brendan Hughes

For the ‘reformers’, the stakes were equally high. Their move to overturn abstentionism would have to pass twice over, first at the IRA convention and then at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis a month later in October 1986. Failure at either point would leave their efforts dead in the water and themselves discredited, and so every trick in the book was tried to ensure that the new policy would go through on both occasions.

Fresh out of prison and newly appointed to the PIRA GHQ staff, Brendan Hughes found himself at a meeting between Ó Brádaigh and Gerry Adams in the lead-up to the convention. Looking back for an interview with White, Hughes admitted that he had been naïve to the manoeuvrings being conducted around him:

We met Ruairí, in a restaurant in Athlone. I know now why I was there. I was there to give Ruairí some sort of – or to give credence to what was going on. And that I was seen as the military person, I was seen as the soldier…I think I was used by the leadership – by Gerry Adams…to try and influence Ruairí.

Not that Ó Brádaigh was impressed. “That fucking man will not influence me,” he said in regards to Hughes, much to the latter’s bewilderment.

As it turned out, changing Ó Brádaigh’s mind proved to be not all that important. While few details are available for the IRA convention, held in secret as it was, the abstentionism policy had evidently been overturned, a fact used to great effect a month later at the Ard Fheis. There, Adams, as the Sinn Féin president, was able to announce to the delegates that their armed wing supported taking Dáil seats.

To those dissatisfied with this, he warned: “To leave Sinn Féin is to leave the struggle.”

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Gerry Adams addresses the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in 1986

Ó Brádaigh thought otherwise. When the move to drop abstentionism was voted through the Ard Fheis, he and a hundred other attendees walked out, reconvening to form a group of their own, Republican Sinn Féin (RSF), with Ó Brádaigh as president until his retirement in 2009. For RSF, the war continued – as much within as without, being plagued with its own share of divisions.

The PIRA-Sinn Féin leadership had won the contest of 1986 but only after a hard-fought effort, and the residue bitterness was felt by many. One of those who had left in favour of RSF, Geraldine Taylor, recalled to White the shock of going from being:

…part of a big, big movement and all of a sudden you find yourself on your own. Friends stop speaking to you. It was a very lonely time.

What kept Taylor going was the cause she served and for which others had suffered:

They died for what I believed in and they died for what they believed in – the freedom of their country – and I couldn’t give it up. I had to keep going for their sakes, for their beliefs and for what they died for. But it was a very lonely time.

1a5aaa35092eb4a19b60433c700e2a42It is the personal stories like these that make this book such compulsive reading. Much of the book consists of White’s interviewees justifying their various decisions, acutely aware of the dim view many of their former peers might take of them. With the future of their country possibly resting on such choices, there was little room for error – or forgiveness from those who believed that the wrong calls had been made.

For Ó Brádaigh, 1986 must have seemed like déjà vu all over again, having previously played a leading role in the 1969 split that saw the breakaway of the PIRA from the Official IRA, seemingly in response – so the usual explanation goes – to the turning of the republican old guard towards politics, as opposed to the armed action that their Provisional counterparts preferred.

But White is not one for pat answers, instead digging beneath the surface of events. As he points out, the Officials were hardly peaceniks themselves. The primary motivation for that rupture was also the issue of abstentionism: the OIRA wanted to overturn it, which the faction that would form the PIRA vigorously opposed. It was a mirror picture of the subsequent split seventeen years later in 1986, with some such as Ó Brádaigh sticking to the same stance on both occasions, even while the rest of the movement reassessed and altered its own.

an-active-service-unit-of-the-irish-republican-army-moves-through-belfast-the-volunteer-in-the-middle-holding-an-anti-armour-e2809cdrogue-grenadee2809d-british-occupied-north-of-ireland-c-1
Armed IRA members patrol the streets

But location and cliques also played divisive roles in 1969. For one, the OIRA leaders lived around Dublin, and as such tended to keep to each other’s company. Their PIRA rivals mostly hailed from outside the capital, in places as diverse as Roscommon, Longford, Limerick and Cork, and their pre-split meetings together saw them developing opinions at odds with those of the Dubliners. Along with geographic differences, generational ones were at play in 1986, a matrix which White summaries as “pre-1969 Northerners; pre-1969 Southerners; post-1969 Northerners; and post-1969 Southerners.”

Don’t worry, charts are provided – keeping track of what’s what is enough to make one’s head spin, even with a learned teacher like White to take you by the hand through the morass of feuds and factions. White admirably keeps an impartial view throughout the book, allowing different sides to air their opinions – and grievances, as often as not.

Nobody seems to have considered the possibility that you could disagree with someone without making them an enemy. Each viewpoint is discussed, carefully and methodically, every possibility dissected and pored over – except that one.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Shadows and Substance: Seán Mac Eoin and the Slide into Civil War, 1922

In the Interests of the Country

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Seán Mac Eoin

Seán Mac Eoin’s speech to the Dáil on the 19th December 1921 was notable in how brisk and business-like it was. The TD for Longford-Westmeath opened by seconding the motion by Arthur Griffith – the speaker proceeding him – that called for the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the item under discussion in the chamber.

As for the whys, Mac Eoin explained where his priorities lay:

I take this course because I know I am doing it in the interests of my country, which I love. To me symbols, recognitions, shadows, have very little meaning. What I want, what the people of Ireland want, is not shadows but substances, and I hold that this Treaty between the two nations gives us not shadows but real substances.[1]

As a soldier through and through, Mac Eoin focused on the military aspects of this substance. That he was not an orator was evident, as he halted more than once while talking, but he made an impression all the same to his viewers:

Clean-shaven, sturdily-built, wearing a soft collar, his pure, rich voice sounded like a whiff of fresh country air through the assembly. His hands were sunk into the pockets of his plain tweed suit.

For the first time in seven hundred years, Mac Eoin reminded his audience in his “pure, rich voice”, British forces were set to leave Ireland, making way for the formation of an Irish army, and a fully equipped one at that.[2]

This was what he and his comrades had been fighting for, to the extent that even if the Treaty was as bad as others said or worse, he would still accept it. After all, should England in the future prove not to be faithful to Ireland, then Ireland could still rely on its armed forces if nothing else (Mac Eoin was clearly a believer in the ‘good fences make good neighbours’ maxim).

An Extremist Speaks

Mac Eoin acknowledged that it might appear strange that someone considered an extremist like him should be in favour of a compromise:

Yes, to the world and to Ireland I say I am an extremist, but it means that I have an extreme love of my country. It was love of my country that made me and every other Irishman take up arms to defend her. It was love of my country that made me ready, and every other Irishman ready, to die for her if necessary.[3]

Mac Eoin wrapped up his speech with what would become the rallying cry of the pro-Treaty side: the agreement meant the freedom to make Ireland free. It was not the most eloquent of oratory on display that day, perhaps showing the haste in which it had been written on the tramcar to the National University where the debates were held.[4]

Nonetheless, it got across the essential points, and some of his statements lingered on afterwards in the minds of his listeners.[5]

Besides, what he said was perhaps less important than who he was. The reporter for the Irish Times certainly thought so, remarking on his reputation as a fighter par excellence and how his support alone would have an impact on the younger, more martial-minded members of the Dáil. As an experienced combatant, having earned renown as O/C of the North Longford Flying Column, while still only twenty-eight years old, Mac Eoin was one of their own, after all.[6]

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National Concert Hall, site of the former National University where the Treaty debates took place

‘Red with Anger’

For the remainder of the debates, Mac Eoin kept his cool, refraining from the indulgence of interruptions, point-scoring and lengthy, out-of-turn discourses that characterised much of the subsequent exchanges.

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Seán T. O’Kelly

When Seán T. O’Kelly, representing Dublin Mid, referred to “those who put Commandant Mac Eoin in the false position of seconding” the motion for the Treaty ratification, Mac Eoin asserted himself calmly: “Who did so? I wish to say that I seconded the motion of my own free will and according to my own free reason.”

“Well, I accept the correction with pleasure,” O’Kelly replied frostily.[7]

Still, there were moments when Mac Eoin could be roused, such as when Kathleen O’Callaghan, the TD for Limerick City-Limerick East, made a backhanded compliment about military discipline. Certain speakers, she noted, each with an Army background, had used the exact same three or four arguments with what were practically the same words.

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Kathleen O’Callaghan

Although O’Callaghan insisted (not wholly convincingly) this was meant as a compliment and not as an insult, Mac Eoin – clearly one of the speakers referred to – was tetchy enough to retort that since every officer in the army had the same facts before him, it was only natural that they would come to the same conclusions and make the same arguments.[8]

Another display of emotion was when Cathal Brugha, in one of the more memorable monologues of the debates, launched a vitriolic attack on the character and record of Michael Collins. Mac Eoin, “red with anger”, according to the Irish Times, was among those who sprang to their feet in outrage at the treatment of their beloved leader.[9]

That Gang of Mine

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Dan Breen

Those in the debating chambers were not the only critics with whom Mac Eoin had to contend. On the same day as his speech, he received a letter from Dan Breen, who had likewise achieved fame for his exploits in the past war. Breen took umbrage at the other man’s argument that the Treaty was bringing the freedom for which they and their comrades had fought. As one of his said comrades, Breen wrote with a snarl, he “would never have handled a gun, nor fired a shot, nor asked anyone else, living or dead, to do likewise if it meant the Treaty as a result.”

The word ‘dead’ had been underlined in the letter. In case Mac Eoin was wondering as to the significance of that, Breen pointedly reminded him that today was the second anniversary of the death of Martin Savage, killed in the attempted assassination of Lord French. Did Mac Eoin suppose, Breen asked sarcastically, that Savage had given his life trying to kill one Governor-General merely to make room for another?[10]

Breen warned that copies of this letter had been sent also to the press. He was to go as far as reprint it in his memoirs. Mac Eoin’s remarks had evidently cut very deeply indeed.[11]

Writing more in sorrow (and bewilderment) then in anger was Séamus Ó Seirdain. An old friend from Longford and a war comrade, he was writing from Wisconsin in the early months of 1922 for news from the Old Country, particularly in regards to the Treaty, over which he had the gravest of doubts. “A man may be a traitor and not know it,” he mused, though he hastened to add that he did not consider Mac Eoin a traitor any more than St. Patrick was a Black-and-Tan.

He was not writing for the purpose of hurting anyone, he assured Mac Eoin, only reaching out “to an old friend who has dared and suffered much for the cause and who may inform me as to what the mysterious present means.”

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Men of an IRA Flying Column

Only One Army

When Mac Eoin wrote back in April 1922, he assured Ó Seirdain that everything was righting itself by the day. True, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was still divided to some degree but it would pull itself together in the course of a few weeks. It had, after all, taken an oath, one to the Republic, and it would never take another, Mac Eoin wrote. There would be no Free State Army. There would only be the IRA until its ideal was achieved and then there would only be the Irish Army.

Arguing for the tangible benefits of the Treaty, Mac Eoin pointed out that there were now more arms in Ireland and more men being trained in the use of them than at any other point in the country’s history. All their posts and military positions once occupied by Britain were in Irish hands. Reiterating much of what he had told the Dáil, by developing the Army (as well as the economy – a rare acknowledgment by Mac Eoin of something non-military) Ireland would be in the position to tell Britain where to go if it came to it.

Although Mac Eoin did not feel the need to be ostentatiously hostile to all things political like some others, he dismissed opponents of the Treaty as “jealous minded politicians…nursing their wounded vanity” while shouting the loudest about patriotism and freedom. If he had anyone in mind specifically, he left that unstated.[12]

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Pro-Treaty poster

By September 1922, three months into the Civil War, it was an embittered Ó Seirdain who wrote to his old friend, denouncing the Free State and the “British-controlled” media in the United States that endorsed it. But if Ó Seirdain was unconvinced by Mac Eoin’s previous arguments in defence of the Treaty, he did not let it get personal, having said a Mass for both Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, both of whom he considered as tragic a loss as Harry Boland and Cathal Brugha on the other side.

As for Mac Eoin: “I know that you are in good faith, I know that your heart is true as ever, but I cannot understand why you are with the Free State. I may never hear from you again, and I want you to understand that no matter what you may think of me, I still stick to the old ideal, and I am still your friend.”[13]

Machinations

He may have castigated the oppositions as petty politicians but Mac Eoin, both publicly and behind the scenes, had helped spearhead much of the political manoeuvrings in the build-up to the fateful Treaty.

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Éamon de Valera

On the 26th August 1921, four months before the agreement was signed, Mac Eoin had been the one to propose to the Dáil the re-election of Éamon de Valera as President of the Irish Republic. Inside the Mansion House, Dublin, so packed with spectators that every available seat and standing room had been taken long before the Dáil opened, Mac Eoin praised de Valera as one who had already done so much for Irish freedom: “The honour and interests of the Nation were alike safe in his hands.”[14]

The Minister for Defence, Richard Mulcahy, seconded the motion right on cue, and de Valera was set to resume his presidency. This was, of course, a carefully choreographed performance, and Mac Eoin later wrote of how he had been acting on the direction of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).[15]

As a member of the IRB Supreme Council, Mac Eoin had boundless faith in the good intentions of the fraternity, which he defended long after it had ceased to exist. For Mac Eoin, the secret society had been the critical link between the days of revolution and the new dawn of a free, democratic country.

Not that everyone would have agreed with this glowing assessment, particularly about Mac Eoin’s later contentions that de Valera had merely been the ‘public’ head of the Republic, with the IRB remaining the true government of the Republic until February 1922, when the Supreme Council agreed to transfer its authority to the new state.[16] 

The Army of the Republic

Before then, de Valera, as Mac Eoin saw – or, at least, chose to see it – had been no more than a convenient figurehead:

At the time of the Truce, Collins was President of the Supreme Council of the IRB and thus President of the Republic. After the Truce, de Valera had journeyed to London and spoke with Lloyd George and each day he sent a report back to Collins: that was because he knew that Collins was the real President, although that was still secret.[17]

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Michael Collins

The idea of the high and mighty de Valera answering to Collins like a dutiful servant may have been no more than a pleasing fantasy of Mac Eoin’s, who was never to entirely reconcile himself to how the Anti-Treatyites went on to dominate Irish politics in the form of Fianna Fáil. But, with the amount of genuine machinations going on behind the scenes, perhaps Seán T. O’Kelly and Kathleen O’Callaghan were not so unreasonable in their suspicions, after all.

Not so easily managed was the widening breach between the pro and anti-Treaty sides. When it came for the Dáil to count the votes on the 7th January 1922, it had been agreed by 64 to 57 to ratify the Treaty. Almost instantly, the issue was raised as to whether it would be a peacefully accepted decision.

“Do I understand that discipline is going to be maintained in Cork as well as everywhere else?” asked J.J. Walsh, the TD for the city in question, a trifle nervously.

“When has the Army in Cork ever shown lack of discipline?” responded Seán Moylan, the representative of North Cork, to general applause.

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Richard Mulcahy

As Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy hastened to reassure the Dáil. “The Army will remain occupying the same position with regard to this Government of the Republic,” he said, adding confidently: “The Army will remain the Army of the Irish Republic.”[18]

This was met with applause, but Mac Eoin would criticise what he saw as Mulcahy’s presumption. “I don’t think that was a wise thing to say,” he told historian Calton Younger years afterwards. “It was not a Government decision. He was giving it as his own.”[19]

For Mac Eoin, keeping to such distinctions would be critical if the fledgling nation was to survive as old certainties collapsed and loyalties blurred.

Securing Athlone

Still, for a while, it would seem as if Mulcahy’s assurance of an intact IRA would prove true. Now a Major-General, Mac Eoin was tasked with supervising the handover of Athlone by the departing British Army, as per the terms of the Truce, on the 28th February 1922.

Thousands had gathered in Athlone for that historic day, lining the streets from the barrack gates to Church Street. The Castle square was likewise packed with people, young and old, trying to force their way to the front, many having come from miles around. Close to a hundred Irish soldiers had arrived the day before from Dublin and Longford, and had been met at the station by their comrades in the Athlone Brigade, who had taken up position on the platform and saluted the newcomers.

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Athlone Bridge over the Shannon River

Their presence had already attracted the attention of a large crowd, complete with torchbearers and a brass-and-reed band. The new soldiers marched into the town, amidst scenes of ample enthusiasm, to the Union Barracks, before billeting in nearby hotels. Mac Eoin’s arrival later that evening in a car was low-key in comparison.

The following morning, the British garrison began departing in small detachments, while large companies of their Irish counterparts, and now successors, moved in from the opposite direction. The two armies met each other on the town bridge, the brass-and reed-band stopping in its rendition of God Save Ireland and the officer at the head of the IRA column giving his men the order to ‘left incline’ to allow the British sufficient space to pass by.

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British soldiers leaving Ireland, 1922

The IRA resumed their journey while the band continued with Let Erin Remember the Days of Old. Tumultuous cheering greeted the Irishmen as they crossed the bridge to where the gates of the barracks were open to receive them. The last of the previous garrison still present, Colonel Hare, joined Major-General Mac Eoin as they entered the interior square and into the building headquarters.

After a few minutes, both men reappeared. Mac Eoin gave the orders ‘attention’ and ‘present arms’ to his arrayed soldiers who promptly obeyed. Colonel Hare returned the salute and was escorted by Mac Eoin to the gate. The two shook hands and with that, Colonel Hare and the last of a foreign presence departed from Athlone Barracks.

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British soldiers lowering the Union Jack in Dublin Castle, 1922

The First Glorious Day

Given the press of people outside, the gates were closed, not without difficulty, to prevent the crowds from pouring in. The troops were paraded in the square before Mac Eoin, and only then were the gates reopened and the general public allowed in, where they were formed up at the rear of the uniformed ranks.

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Interior of Athlone Castle

“Fellow soldiers and citizens of Athlone and the Midlands,” said Mac Eoin, standing in a motorcar in the centre of the square, “this is a day for Athlone and a day for the Midlands. It is a day for Ireland, the first one glorious day in over three hundred years.”

Look how we have regarded Athlone. Athlone had all our hatred and our joys and we looked on it with pride. We had hatred for Athlone because it represented the symbols of British rule and the might of Britain’s armed battalions. Thank God the day has come when I, as your representative, presented arms to the last British soldier and let him walk out of the gate – in other words – he skipped it!

This was met with appreciative laughter and applause. “You men of Athlone, you men who stand dressed in the uniforms of Sarsfield, on you devolves a very high duty,” Mac Eoin continued. Invoking the memory of Sergeant Custume, he invited his audience to look back at the heroic defence of Athlone in 1691, when Custume sacrificed his life in defence of the town bridge – “We go on in the scene and look as it were on the moving pictures” – as if they watching a movie.

“We see Sergeant Custume and the plain Volunteer making their brave struggle on that old bridge,” Mac Eoin said. “We see them tearing plank after plank and firing shot after shot until the last plank went down the river forever.” Just as those plain Volunteers of yesteryear had held out for Athlone, now the plain Volunteers of today held Athlone for Ireland.

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Illustration of the siege of Athlone, 1691, by artist William Barnes Wollen

Mac Eoin smiled as he took in the rapturous cheers for the stirring images he had conjured for his listeners. “It is up to us now to maintain the high ideals of Custume and his men. As it has come to our hands once more, through no carelessness will it be lost. We have it and we will hold it!”

After the applause had died down, Mac Eoin requested the civilians present to leave the barracks at the end of the ceremony. He then held up a document that he said made him responsible for the property here. When things in Ireland were properly settled, Mac Eoin promised, he would invite the people in and let them go where they pleased.

Mac Eoin and his staff proceeded to the Castle. He climbed up on the ramparts, where he hoisted the tricolour on the yacht-mast that had been provided beforehand, the previous flagstaff having been cut down by the British garrison in a case of imperial sour grapes.

As he did so, his soldiers stood to attention, the officers saluted on the square below and a guard of honour fired three volleys as a salute amidst the continuous cheering of those civilians who had ignored the instructions to leave, instead climbing up on the castle and throwing their caps in the air with wild abandon.

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Athlone Castle

To Fight or Not to Fight

Unperturbed by the carnival atmosphere beneath him, Mac Eoin called out to the crowd to say that it was over three hundred years since an Irish flag had been hauled down from amidst shot and shell. The flag of Ireland was being unfurled that day, also under fire, and they meant to keep it there.

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Seán Mac Eoin, surrounded by his officers, raising the tricolour after Athlone Barracks

After descending from the Castle, Mac Eoin was met by representatives from the Athlone Urban Council and the local Sinn Féin Club. He accepted the complimentary addresses from each group on his own behalf and that of the Army. After hearing so much praise, he expressed the hope that “I will not suffer from vainglorious thoughts or a swelled head.”

When the Sinn Féin delegates congratulated him on his vote for the Treaty, Mac Eoin said that: “Were it not for the ratification of the Treaty this a day we would not see, or perhaps ever see.”

In response to those who believed that they should have continued to fight, Mac Eoin compared his stance to another of his sixteen months ago as he stood on the hill of Ballinalee, Co. Longford, in November 1920 at the head of his flying column:

On that morning a small party of us met a large party of the enemy that came to burn the town. We fought them a certain distance and I decided before going another round to keep cool. To fight that other round meant that they would stay and I would have to go. By not fighting it out I knew that we would remain and they would have to go. That is what has occurred as regards the Treaty.

No doubt, we can fight another round, but the chances are when we fight it that we go and they stay. As it is, we stay, we go. That is the test as to who has won. We hold the field where the fight was fought and therefore the victory is ours.

And with that, Mac Eoin and his staff returned to their barracks, their men following suit. The soldiers were allowed out later that evening, their green uniforms being much admired by the crowds that continued to fill the streets.[20]

Maintaining Athlone

The good will did not last long. A little under a month since claiming Athlone in the name of the Irish nation, Mac Eoin was forced to defend it for the sake of its new government.

He had left for Dublin to report on the local situation, which he considered serious enough for him to warn his acting commander, Kit McKeon, to take care in his absence. Upon returning, Mac Eoin met with McKeon who opened the reunion with: “I have held the barracks for you until this moment and I hand it over to you.”

Before Mac Eoin could reply, he heard shouting from outside the barracks. Looking out, he saw six of his officers with revolvers drawn, standing in a line in the square between the armoury and a group of agitated soldiers.

Mac Eoin acted quickly, calling out: “Fall in all ranks; officers take posts.” As he remembered:

Thank God they all fell in, and then I knew I could hold the Barracks in Athlone for the elected Government in Ireland. I addressed them, pointing out that Athlone was once again in Irish hands.

Mac Eoin pointed out the last time Athlone was in Irish hands was when Sergeant Custume and his eleven men tried and vain to hold the bridge in 1691 and died.

I pointed out that they were the successors of Custume and his men, but they could do more than Custume; they could hold Athlone. This was well received, and I then called each officer by name, putting him the question – was he prepared to serve Ireland and the Government, and obey my orders.

The first officer Mac Eoin called was Patrick Morrissey, who he had recently appointed as Athlone Brigade O/C. When confronted with the question, Morrissey replied that he was prepared to obey Mac Eoin’s orders but not those of the Government. Mac Eoin stressed to him and the others to note well that the only orders he would give were on the authority of the Government.

Backed into a corner, Morrissey made his choice clear: “Then I will not obey.”

That was enough for Mac Eoin. Wasting no further time, he stripped Morrissey of his rank and had him ejected from the barracks. He next went down the line of officers, putting the same question to each in turn. By the end, he was left with three officers from the Leitrim and Athlone brigades, standing in front of their respective companies.

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Free State soldiers on parade

He repeated the same question to them all, rankers and privates alike. Only after they had answered that they were prepared to obey and serve both the Government and Mac Eoin did he dismiss them to their billets. It was then, in Mac Eoin’s opinion, that:

The Civil War was started. I had then no doubts about it, and the more I see of the whole position since then the more convinced I am that “the Civil War was on” and not of the Government’s or my making.

The opponents of the Treaty in the Four Courts and many Fianna Fáil supporters and writers today still assert that the “Civil War” began with the National Army attacking the Four Courts.

This is absolutely incorrect. The action by the National Forces at the Four Courts was the action of the Irish Government to end the Civil War and was, therefore, the beginning of the end.[21]

As steadfast as Mac Eoin’s performance had been that day, it had not been enough to hold over 80 of the 100 men from the Leitrim Brigade who deserted the following night. At least they had had no weapons to take with them, Mac Eoin having made the precaution of posting men from his native Longford over the armoury.

In his later notes, Mac Eoin called his men “soldiers-Volunteers.” It is an apt phrase, indicating men who were still in the transition between the IRA – part militia and part guerrilla force – and a professional army. In Athlone that day, this inability to reconcile the independence of the old and the demands of the new had threatened to be catastrophic.

The West Awakens

The situation remained perilous. The anti-Treaty IRA held the eastern half of Athlone by occupying a few shops there. Mac Eoin was sufficiently aggrieved to move against them:

As they seized private property, I exercised the power vested in me to protect life and property in my area. I won’t weary you with how I did it, suffice to say, that I put them out of the shops without loss of life.

That these rival posts were positioned to cut off lines of communication with Dublin was as much a motivation for their removal as respect for private property. The manager of the Royal Hotel argued for retaining the Anti-Treatyites lodged there since they were, after all, paying customers. To eject them would be interfering with his business.

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Royal Hotel, Athlone

Mac Eoin was persuaded to leave these particular guests be on condition that they did not stop or hinder public transport through the town or put up any sentries or further military installations. The Anti-Treatyites agreed and remained until a bloody incident in Athlone on the 25th April forced Mac Eoin’s hand. In the meantime, Mac Eoin had more than just Athlone to worry about, as the turmoil further west was demanding his attention.[22]

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Arthur Griffith

A pro-Treaty meeting planned for Easter Sunday in Sligo town had become the flashpoint between the hostile sides. Arthur Griffith was due to talk in the town which was rapidly starting to resemble an armed camp with a number of Anti-Treatyites occupying buildings such as the town hall, the post office and the courthouse. Compounding the tension were the party of pro-Treaty men who had arrived one night in an armoured car and taken up residence in the jail.

“The scenes are truly warlike,” wrote the Sligo Independent, at this point still referring to both factions as the IRA, the Pro-Treatyites being the ‘official’ IRA and their counterparts as the ‘unofficial’ one.

The latter faction seemed to be the dominant one. Its commander, Liam Pilkington, had recently posted a proclamation that prohibited all local public meetings, ostensibly on the grounds of public order. Caught in the middle of an already tense situation, the town authorities sent a telegram to Griffith, cautiously asking if his talk was still going ahead.

Griffith swiftly sent back an implacable reply:

Dail Eireann has not authorised, and will not authorise, any interference with the rights of public meeting and free speech. I, President of Dail Eireann, will go to Sligo on Sunday night.

Mac Eoin, too, was not to be moved, especially on the question of who held the military power in the area:

As Competent Military Authority of Mid-Western Command, I know nothing of Proclamation.

And that was that. If the Sligo authorities had hoped Griffith and Mac Eoin would take the hint and cancel the event, thus saving the town from the risk of becoming even more of a battleground, then they were sorely disappointed.[23]

The Sligo Situation

The meeting went ahead as planned, largely without bloodshed – largely.

Sligo seethed with activity in anticipation of Griffith’s arrival, with men from both factions of the IRA piling their sandbags, barricading the windows of billets and obtaining a worryingly large amount of field dressings and other first-aid appliances from the local chemists.

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Anti-Treaty men leaning out of a window in Sligo, 1922 (full video on YouTube)

Griffith arrived at Longford Station on the evening of the 16th April where he was met by Mac Eoin, accompanied by a guard of honour with fixed bayonets on rifles. After a speech by Griffith from the train, they continued on to Sligo, arriving there on Saturday after 6 pm and joining the rest of the pro-Treaty forces based in the jail.

Other visitors to the town would have found accommodation scarce, as many hotels were already filled with young men from the ‘unofficial’ IRA who stood to attention in the hallways, holding their weapons – mostly shotguns, with an assortment of rifles and revolvers – and dressed in civilian attire save for a few uniformed officers. They had been coming to Sligo in intervals all day, also by train.

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IRA men, standing to attention outside a hotel entrance

It was not just the Anti-Treatyites who were receiving reinforcements. The next day, at about 11 am, three lorries with about forty men from the ‘official’ IRA drove through the town, cheering and shouting, having come all the way from the Beggar’s Bush Barracks in Dublin. In contrast to their ‘unofficial’ counterparts, they went fully uniformed while equipped with service rifles, holding them at the ready. Some of them pulled up before the Imperial Hotel and the rest continued to Ramsay’s Hotel, about fifty yards down, both premises being in anti-Treaty hands.

Shots were fired in front of the two hotels. Which side had done so first was impossible to tell. The Anti-Treatyites received the worst of it, with three wounded, one in the neck, though there were no fatalities. The Free Staters drove away in their lorries, being cheered by the large crowd that had gathered at the sound of battle.

Shortly afterwards, General Pilkington sent word to General Mac Eoin, asking for a parley. Mac Eoin replied that he was willing to meet on the condition that the Anti-Treatyites evacuated the post office since that belonged to the Dáil as government property.

Mac Eoin had cut a commanding figure as he strode through the town earlier that morning, fully armed and unconcerned by the armed sentries staring out of fortified windows as he passed. He was not going to spoil the impression he made by agreeing too readily to talk, and negotiations withered on the vine when Pilkington refused to withdraw from the post office as demanded.

There was still the matter of three pro-Treaty soldiers who had been captured at the Imperial Hotel during the shootout there. When Mac Eoin came to demand their release, along with the return of their munitions, the Anti-Treatyite officer in charge meekly acquiesced.

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Site of the former Imperial Hotel, Sligo

Success in Sligo

This set the tone for the rest of the day, which belonged to the Pro-Treatyites. Despite their numbers, the neutered Anti-Treatyites made no move or protest as a parade of cars, each flying a tricolour, slowly made their way through the streets to the town centre. Mac Eoin led the procession, one hand holding a revolver and the other on the turret of the armoured car at the front. This vehicle was positioned in the town centre near the post office, its gun trained in an unsubtle warning on the building the ‘unofficial’ IRA had refused to vacate.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers onboard an armoured car with a machine-gun

As before, Mac Eoin’s war record served as a statement in itself. Alderman D.M. Hanley introduced the general as someone whose name was known and honoured from one end of the country to the other. He was the man who had fought the Black-and-Tans and not from under his bed, Hanley continued, in what was a similarly unsubtle jab at the young men who made up much of the ‘unofficial’ IRA currently in Sligo. And who could fail to admire a man who treated a captured and wounded enemy fairly, honourably and decently (a reference to the captured Auxiliaries Mac Eoin had spared after the Clonfin Ambush of February 1921)?

After the applause to this glowing introduction, Mac Eoin spoke. While the other speakers, such as Griffith, used as a platform the same car that had carried them to the meeting, Mac Eoin called down from a window overlooking the town centre.

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Seán Mac Eoin addressing the crowd in Sligo from a window (note the pistol in hand)

He was there as a soldier, not to argue for or against the Treaty, he said (somewhat disingenuously), but to uphold the freedom of speech and the sovereignty of the Irish people. The Army must be the servant, not the dictator of the people. It must be the people’s protection from foes within and without.

As in the Dáil, Mac Eoin’s speech was short and unpretentious, saying no more than necessary. But then, his name and reputation were enough to do his talking for him. One of the subsequent orators, Thomas O’Donnell TD, praised him as the one who had taken arms from policemen when they had arms, as opposed to those Anti-Treatyites who were shooting policemen now and somehow thinking themselves better patriots than Seán Mac Eoin.

Arthur Griffith addresses an election meeting in Sligo Town, 1922
Arthur Griffith addresses the crowd in Sligo town square, April 1922

The general continued to lead by example. When the meeting came to a close, a dozen pressmen decided to drive to Carrick-on-Shannon to make their reports, the telegraph wires in Sligo having been cut to make communication from there impossible. Mac Eoin escorted them in his armoured car. Coming across a blockade of felled trees across the road, Mac Eoin threw off his heavy military overcoat and set to work clearing the way with a woodman’s axe.[24]

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Footage of Seán Mac Eoin helping to clear the road (full clip on YouTube)

A Death in Athlone

The rally in Sligo had been a resounding success but Mac Eoin had scant time to savour the triumph. Back in Athlone, the simmering tensions finally boiled over in the early hours of the 25th April. Mac Eoin was retiring for the night when, sometime after midnight, he heard about four shots nearby. He sprang out of bed, picking up the revolver at hand on a table before opening the window. He leaned out in time to see men running by.

“Who goes there?” Mac Eoin called.

“A friend” came the cryptic reply before the strangers disappeared.

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George Adamson

Mac Eoin hurried outside to find three of his men, with another lying on the ground, his head in a spreading pool of blood. The stricken man, Brigadier-General George Adamson, was rushed to the military hospital where he died. The other men on the scene told of how they had been walking down the street when they found themselves surrounded by an armed party, whom of one had shot Adamson through the ear before fleeing.

Adamson’s death hit his commander hard. At the funeral two days later, before a crowd of ten thousand, a “visibly affected” Mac Eoin, according to a local newspaper, “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”[25]

Mac Eoin had little doubt as to the motivation behind the killing. Adamson had been among those who had remained loyal from the outset during the attempted mutiny that Mac Eoin had quelled in Athlone Barracks. As Mac Eoin told the Pensions Board in 1929, as part of his recommendation for financial assistance to Adamson’s bereaved mother: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”[26]

Mac Eoin decided that enough was enough. The anti-Treaty men in Athlone were taken into custody when their garrison in the Royal Hotel was surrounded by pro-Treaty soldiers. Conditions for them and subsequent POWs in Athlone Prison were harsh, with meagre food, a lack of fresh clothing and overcrowding in the cells.[27]

This, and that they were being detained without charge or trial, was of little consequence to Mac Eoin, who was in no mood for legal niceties. As far as he was concerned, he had allowed his enemies to remain at liberty and lost a valued soldier as a result.

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George Adamson’s funeral passing through Athlone

Securing the Midlands

Not one to for half-measures, Mac Eoin moved to mop the remaining opposition nearby, by ordering the seizure of enemy posts in Kilbeggan and Mullingar. Assigned to the former, Captain Peadar Conlon drove there with two Crossley Tenders full of men on the 1st May. When the demand to surrender was refused by the anti-Treaty garrison in the Kilbeggan Barracks, Conlon issued an ultimatum that he would attack in ten minutes unless they cleared out.

While waiting, Conlon had the building surrounded. When the ten minutes were up, the besieged men called out to say that they would leave as long as they could retain their arms, ammunition and everything else inside. Conlon agreed to let them keep their weapons but all other items in the barracks were to stay.

When that was refused, Captain Conlon gave then another two hours, after which the Anti-Treatyites, hoping to drag out the situation, asked if they could be allowed to remain until the next morning. Conlon refused and again repeated his threat to attack, this time to do so immediately. The garrison caved in at that and departed, leaving behind the furnishings as demanded.

At Mullingar, the Anti-Treatyites did not go so quietly. Two of them had been arrested by Free Staters on the 25th April. When it seemed like they would resist, a couple of shots were fired at the ground to dissuade them. Getting the hint, the rest of their comrades evacuated Mullingar Barracks a week later on the 3rd May.

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IRA fighters, all in civilian dress

Later that night, an explosion ripped through the building. The fire brigade brought hoses to combat the flames enveloping the barracks and managed to save the adjacent houses, but with the barracks left a smouldering ruin. One of the former garrison later related to historian Uinseann MacEoin how he and another man had set the explosives in the barracks after the rest of the Anti-Treatyites had left.[28]

Regardless of the damage, Mac Eoin could report a victory. Lines of communication with Dublin were re-established, allowing the fledgling Free State a firmer hold on the Midlands.[29]

Squabbles in the Dáil

Back in Dublin, Mac Eoin returned to a Dáil forced to confront the depth of animosity inflicting the country. In addition to the death of Adamson and the subsequent fighting in the Midlands, pro and anti-Treaty forces had clashed in Kilkenny City on the 2nd May and did not stopped until the following day when the Anti-Treatyites were effectively expelled from the town.

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Free State soldiers outside Kilkenny Castle, where the Anti-Treatyites had held out in a last stand before surrendering, May 1922

The Dáil chambers listened to a report that eighteen men had been killed in Kilkenny – actually, there had been no fatalities, despite a number of injuries – which convinced many on both sides of the divide that enough was enough.

But not all agreed on the solution.

Mac Eoin listened incredulously to the talk of how peace needed to be made at once. On the contrary, Mac Eoin felt that the situation on the ground was too far gone for soft touches. The strong arm of the law was needed, and his men should be allowed to fulfil such a role. As he told the chamber in whose name he had been acting:

At present it may be difficult to arrange a truce in some particular instances. Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences, and justice demands that certain things be done. It would be difficult to stop men out at the moment to cause arrests for these incidents.

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Éamon de Valera

Here, de Valera got his second wind. Minutes before, he had been humbly promising to do his best to make his IRA allies see sense, while all but admitting his powerlessness over them. Now, de Valera tried to regain some face by singling out one of the opposition facing him from the benches on the grounds of propriety:

De Valera: Is Commandant Mac Eoin speaking as a member of the House or in a military capacity? If this matter is to be raised it must be arranged with the Chief of Staff and not with a subordinate officer.

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Seán Mac Eoin

Mac Eoin: I think I should speak without being interrupted by anybody – I do not care who it is. When I am here I am a member of the House. When I am in the field, I am a soldier and do not you forget it – or any other person. I am speaking from information at my disposal that such is the case. If you want me to act as a soldier, I can go outside and I will tell you.

De Valera: I suggest that any information Commandant Mac Eoin has had better be given to the Chief of Staff. My suggestion is that the Chief of Staff and the Chief Executive Officer get together and arrange a truce. It is for them to get information from their subordinate officers as to their conditions.

As Mac Eoin’s temper sizzled against de Valera’s glacial disdain, Collins waded in on the former’s side: “Lest there should be any misunderstanding, I take it that no one member of this House is censor over the remarks of another member of this House.”[30]

An Impossible Situation

Mac Eoin was to claim, years later, that a prominent Fianna Fáil supporter had said to him: “Thank God you won the Civil War, but we won the aftermath by talking and writing you out of the fruits of your victory. We have the fruits of your success. I shudder to think of what would have happened if we won the Civil War.”[31]

Whether or not someone had crossed party lines to actually say such a thing, it encapsulates perfectly Mac Eoin’s own attitudes. Sometime in the 1960s, he put his thoughts and memories of that turbulent era to paper. A memoir was intended, though one never materialise.

All the same, his notes and rough drafts do offer insight into what it must have been like to have been in the passenger seat, helpless to do anything but watch as the country, slowly at first but with rapid acceleration, slide into another war, this time between former comrades.

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Harry Boland

At the start of May, Mac Eoin found himself part of a 10-person group, appointed by the Dáil to discuss the best way out of the impasse. Five represented the anti-Treaty side – Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Liam Mellows, Seán Moylan and Harry Boland – and the other half for the Free State in the persons of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Séamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Mac Eoin.

It was an experience Mac Eoin would remember with profound horror.

Held in the Mansion House, the talks would begin well enough, with progress made until a member of the anti-Treaty delegation arrived late, forcing the others to explain everything to him. As often as not, the newcomer would not agree with what had already been settled, and the talks would have to start all over again, until an hour or so later when another tardy delegate came to send everything back to stage one.

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Kathleen Clarke

Mac Eoin put the blame for the habitual tardiness on the opposing side – only Kathleen Clarke was consistently on time – unsurprisingly so, perhaps, though there is no reason to doubt the strain he felt: “This was exasperating…To me, it was an impossible situation.” His time as a guerrilla leader had ill-prepared him for such frustrations: “I had never met anything like it before.”[32]

At the same time, a similar set of meetings were held elsewhere in the building, in the Supper Room, which also included Mac Eoin, along with Eoin O’Duffy, Gearóid O’Sullivan for the Pro-Treatyites, and Liam Lynch, Seán Moylan and – again – Mellows on the other side. Mac Eoin was obliged to go back and forth between two conferences, dressed in his new green uniform and with a revolver in his belt.

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The military leaders meet at the Mansion House, May 1922. From left to right: Seán Mac Eoin (in uniform), Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows (video on YouTube)

Vera McDonnell, a stenographer in the Sinn Féin Office, was assigned to take notes for the Dáil committee. She came to suspect that the presence of so many IRA leaders in the same building may have deterred the committee members from coming to any decisions on the basis that it would be the Army having the final say in any case.

She remembered a frustrated Mac Eoin being driven to tell them that surely they had enough brains to make their judgements, unless they wanted to wait until he came back from the other meeting. McDonnell thought this was very funny, though it is unlikely that Mac Eoin did as well.[33]

In any case, all the talks were to no avail. In a joint declaration read out to the Dáil by its Speaker, Eoin MacNeill, on the 10th May, Kathleen Clarke and Séamus O’Dwyer admitted that, despite extensive dialogue during the course of eleven meetings since the 3rd May to find a common basis for agreement: “We have failed.”

The laconic report was met with dread from those in attendance, the implications of such failure all too clear. Only Mac Eoin seemed unperturbed as he left the chamber, wearing an oddly benign smile.[34]

Pointing Fingers

The problems in the country were not limited to such futile talk shops. Like many in the IRA who had risked their lives against the British, he had a strong contempt for those who had only joined up after the Truce, once the immediate danger of a Tan raid or a police arrest had passed.

In Mac Eoin’s opinion, these ‘Trucateers’ brought nothing but trouble:

They were critical of the Officers and Volunteers who bore the brunt of the Battle prior to the Truce; they were very aggressive and militant at this time and in many places they were, by their actions, guilty of breaches of the Truce on the Irish side and were anxious to show their ability now. They were all ambitious for promotion, and this was something unknown in our ranks before the Truce.[35]

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Rory O’Connor

At the same time, the problem did not lie entirely with the recruits, as far as Mac Eoin was concerned, for the old hands could be equally troublesome. Rory O’Connor and John O’Donovan, both Anti-Treatyites, found themselves in charge of the newly-formed Departments of Chemistry and Explosives respectively.

As their responsibilities were yet untried, both, according to Mac Eoin, were eager for war to resume:

I believe this was one of the major causes (of course, there were others) of the Civil War. They felt that they should have been allowed to test their new inventions against the British. They tested them during the Civil War against ourselves, and they were a failure.[36]

Such opinions are coloured, of course, with the lingering bitterness that characterised so much of the country after the Civil War. As history, they are debatable. As insight into the attitudes and prejudices of the times, they are invaluable.

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Free State poster, denigrating the Anti-Treatyites as latecomers in the previous war against Britain

A Longford Wedding

Somehow Mac Eoin found the time for more personal matters. He wedded Alice Cooney on the 21st June in Longford town, the streets of which were hung with bunting and tricolours by people eager to honour a native son and war hero. When one of the many cars thronging the streets parked in front of St Mel’s Cathedral, Collins and Griffith stepped out together, to be promptly lit up by camera flashes. Eoin O’Duffy was also present, and the three Free Sate leaders signed as the witnesses to their colleague’s wedding.

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St Mel’s Cathedral, Longford

Collins in particular was noted to be in boyish good spirits in the company of his friend. He would later come to the rescue when the groom had forgotten the customary gold coin to be used in the wedding by providing one of his own. Other officers from the numerous divisions and brigades in the pro-Treaty forces were in attendance, along with members of the old Longford Flying Column who saluted Mac Eoin outside the Cathedral as their former commander passed by.

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The newly-weds (video on YouTube)

Public interest did not end at the door. More people packed the Cathedral, some even standing on the aisle seats for a better view. Cameras were ever present, in the hands of local people as well as the ubiquitous pressmen, one of whom – untroubled by sacrilege – was resting his camera on a church candelabrum as he snapped away for posterity.

But possibly the most remarkable feature of the event was the present from Mrs McGrath, the bereaved mother of Thomas McGrath, the policeman for whose slaying seventeen months ago Mac Eoin had been sentenced to death and only narrowly reprieved. Mrs McGrath also sent a card wishing the newlyweds every possible happiness and good fortune. If a mother who had lost a son could make such a gesture, then perhaps there was hope for the country.[37]

Or perhaps not.

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Seán Mac Eoin on his wedding day with Alice Cooney

A Return to Sligo

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Joseph Sweeney

Mac Eoin enjoyed his honeymoon in the North-West, though even that proved eventful when his car accidentally ran into a ditch. He sent out a telegram to Joseph Sweeney, the senior Free State officer in Donegal, for help in rescuing the vehicle. When that was done, Sweeney took the opportunity of putting on a parade for his esteemed visitor in Letterkenny on the 28th June.

Sweeney was marching down the main street with the rest of the men when a courier reached him with a message to pass on to Mac Eoin: the Four Courts, the headquarters of the Anti-Treatyites in Dublin, had been under attack since that morning. The long-dreaded fratricidal war had finally come about.[38]

Galvanised by this shocking news, Mac Eoin made it to Sligo town. The police barracks there was ablaze, its anti-Treaty garrison having pulled out in the early hours of the morning before torching it and the adjoining Recreation Hall in a ‘scorched earth’ tactic. Civilians who tried to reach the Town Hall where the fire-hose was kept were turned back at gunpoint by those same arsonists.

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Front page of anti-Treaty newspaper

Mac Eoin was not so easily deterred. He marched to the Town Hall, a squad of his soldiers in tow, and returned to the barracks with the fire-hose in hand. Seeing that the Barracks and Recreation Hall, both burning fiercely, were beyond help, Mac Eoin instead turned the water on the neighbouring buildings.

It took three hours for the barracks to burn, during which a number of bombs carelessly left behind inside were heard exploding. By the time the flames died down, the two buildings were ruined shells, but the rest of the town was safe, from the fire at least. Mac Eoin, along with some local men, earned praise from the Sligo Independent “for their fearless work” in fire-fighting.[39]

Putting out the war, however, was not to be so readily done.

References

[1] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p.  23. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

[2] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 11

[3] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 23-4

[4] Seán Mac Eoin Papers, University College Dublin Archives, P151/80

[5] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?, p. 11

[6] Irish Times, 20/12/1921

[7] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 134

[8] Ibid, p. 314

[9] Irish Times, 09/01/1922

[10] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/79

[11] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 168

[12] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/124

[13] Ibid, P151/162

[14] Irish Times, 27/08/1921

[15] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1786

[16] Ibid, P151/1835

[17] Ibid, P151/1837

[18] Debate on the Treaty, pp. 424-5

[19] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), p. 235

[20] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/131

[21] Ibid, P151/1809

[22] Ibid, P151/1812

[23] Sligo Independent, 15/04/1922

[24] Ibid, 22/04/1922

[25] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[26] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[27] Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[28] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922, 05/05/1922 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922 ; MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 375

[29] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[30] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), p. 368

[31] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1812

[32] Ibid, P151/1813 ; Irish Times, 01/05/1922

[33] McDonnell, Vera (BMH / WS 1050), pp. 9-10

[34] Irish Times, 10/05/1922

[35] Mac Eoin Papers, P151/1804

[36] Ibid

[37] Longford Leader, 24/06/1922

[38] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 287

[39] Sligo Independent, 08/07/1922

Bibliography

Books

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

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

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

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

University College Dublin Archives

Seán Mac Eoin Papers

Newspapers

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Sligo Independent

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)

Bureau of Military History Statement

McDonnell, Vera, WS 1050

The Weakness of Conviction: The End of Liam Lynch in the Civil War, 1923 (Part VII)

A continuation of: The Irrelevance of Discourse: Liam Lynch and the Tightening of the Civil War, 1922-3 (Part VI)

‘A Trying Experience’

Shortly after 8 pm on the 12th January 1923, John C. Dinneen answered the door to his residence on Morehampton Road and found himself confronted by six youths, who seized and dragged him out, breaking the little finger of his right hand in the struggle. When he plaintively asked if he could at least put on his boots instead of the slippers he had, he was refused. The pistols brandished in his face deterred any further resistance – as they did to a couple of passers-by about to come to the rescue – and Dinneen was bundled into the waiting motorcar and driven away.

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Morehampton Road, Dublin

Blindfolded, Dinneen was closely questioned for over half an hour, at the end of which he was able to convince his captors that he was in fact John Dineen the insurance company official and not John Dineen the TD for East and North-East Cork. The kidnappers apologised for their error, explaining that they had been hoping to hold the other man in case any punishment was exacted on Ernest O’Malley, an imprisoned comrade of theirs.

The wrong Dinneen was allowed out of the car and left on the pavement, “somewhat shaken as a result of this trying experience,” as the Irish Times reported with masterly understatement.[1]

‘His Exacting Adventure’

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Oliver Gogaarty

Dinneen was not the only kidnap victim that night, or even that same hour. Dr Oliver St John Gogarty, a member of the newly-formed Senate, was relaxing in his bath when his maid alerted him to the presence of four strangers on his doorstep – or, rather, right outside his bathroom, as the newcomers had followed the woman upstairs. Two remained on the stairs while the other pair entered the bathroom, where they ‘asked’ Gogarty to come along with them, his medical services purportedly needed for an injured friend of theirs.

Gogarty was not naïve enough either to believe them or think he had a choice. As with Dinneen, experiencing his own abduction at the same time, Gogarty was blindfolded and driven away. Catching a glimpse of his surroundings as the car stopped at a house by a river, the senator guessed he was in the Island Bridge district, next to the Liffey, an area he knew well.

He bided his time while under guard in the house. After requesting a breath of fresh air, he was led out to the yard by one of his captors. Steeling his nerves, Gogarty asked his unwanted companion to hold his heavy coat when he took it off. When the latter obliged by stretching out his hand, a revolver held in the other, Gogarty flung the coat over his head.

He plunged into the swollen Liffey, swimming with the icy current before dragging himself onto the bank with the aid of some overhanging bushes. Once again, the Irish Times knew exactly how to treat a terrifying ordeal with a light touch: “With the exception of some slight bruises about the head and face, Dr Gogarty was little the worse for his exciting adventure.”[2]

His daring escape would become the subject of a number of comic verses. As a final indignity, Gogarty – as sardonically noted by Ernest Blythe, the Minister for Local Government – missed the chance to claim them as his own until too late.[3]

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Oliver Gogarty releasing two swans into the Liffey out of gratitude to the river for his escape, in 1924. Also featured are W.T. Cosgrave (left) and W.B. Yeats (back)

Terrorism and its Countering

As the name-dropping of O’Malley would indicate, the kidnappers had been no common or garden-variety criminals. Nor had their victims been selected at random. Since November 1922, O’Malley – Assistant Chief of Staff to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), as well as O/C to its Northern and Eastern Division Commands – had been held in Mountjoy Prison following his capture in Dublin.

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Ernie O’Malley

He had not been taken easily, going down in a blaze of glory and gunshots which had severely wounded him and killed a Free State soldier, but gone down he had all the same. Now he was facing a court-martial, the end result of which could only be the firing squad. If so, he would not be the first IRA prisoner to be put to death.

Ever since September 1922, when the Government had passed its Public Safety Bill – or the ‘Murder Bill’ as its intended victims dubbed it – the number of executions had grown from a trickle to a grimly steady number. Even notable names and famous figures from the war against Britain, such as Liam Mellows and Rory O’Connor, were not safe, both being executed in December 1922.

Such a measure was controversial even among the Government’s supporters but its ministers remained unapologetic. “Once civil war is started, all ordinary rules must go by the board,” was Blythe’s verdict. When threatened, the duty of the state, as he saw it, was “to supply sufficient counter-terror to neutralise the terror which was being used against us.”[4]

Unclean Hands

On the other side, Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, was of the same opinion, the difference being that, as he saw it, it was the Anti-Treatyites who were using counter-terrorism against the sort used first by the Free State. He had taken to heart the danger O’Malley was in, as he told Éamon de Valera on the 10th January: “We are doing our utmost to take hostages to be dealt with if [O’Malley] is executed.”

To Lynch, he was merely fighting fire with fire: “We will have to deal with all enemy officials and supporters as traitors if this execution takes place. They mean to wipe out all the leaders on our side, so we had better meet the situation definitely.”[5]

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Liam Lynch

In line with this hard-edged policy, he wrote to Frank Henderson, the O/C of the Dublin Brigade. Tersely and crisply, Lynch instructed him that:

You will leave nothing undone to take three persons who are active supporters of MURDER BILL, prominent enemy officials or active supporters of FREE STATE as hostages. You will ensue they are persons we can execute, if enemy murder [O’Malley].[6]

For Lynch, ruthlessness had come slowly, almost grudgingly. On the 12th September 1922, he had, while decrying the on-the-spot killings of unarmed IRA members, instructed against retaliations on “unarmed Officers or Soldiers of enemy forces.”[7]

Three months later, he was issuing ‘Operation Order No. 14’, which called for “three enemy officers to be arrested and imprisoned in each Brigade area”, to be killed in turn for every IRA prisoner executed. By January, his Adjutant General, Con Moloney, was circulating a list of twenty-two Free State senators whose homes were to be destroyed, and the men themselves targeted, man for man, in the event of further POW death sentences.[8]

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Éamon de Valera

Even some of the anti-Treaty leaders were troubled at this escalation, such as de Valera. As President of the Irish Republic, with Lynch as Chief of Staff of the Army of the Republic, the two men were, in theory, partners, each responsible for their own sphere, de Valera the political and Lynch the military. But the President felt it necessary to warn Lynch that his policy “of an eye for an eye is not going to win the people to us, and without the people we can never win.”

Lynch was unmoved. “We must adopt severe measures or else chuck it at once,” he replied, stressing that, up to now, the Anti-Treatyites had been blameless: “IRA in this war as in the last wish to fight with clean hands.” It was the enemy who “has outraged all rules of warfar”, and were consequently responsible for everything that ensued.[9]

Punitive Actions

Meanwhile, inside the hospital wing of Mountjoy Prison, O’Malley himself was taking a resigned view of his predicament. When asked by a visiting Free State officer as to whether he required legal assistance with his trial-to-come, O’Malley replied that, as a soldier, he had done nothing but fight and kill the enemies of his nation and would do so again. No defence on his part was necessary, especially not for a trial with a foregone conclusion.

The only hope for a reprieve was for the prison doctor to declare him unfit for trial due to his still-healing wounds. His frail condition did concern O’Malley greatly, as he feared collapsing “at the trial through weakness, and the enemy may state I collapsed through funk.”[10]

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Mountjoy Prison

Communications between him and Lynch were possible through secret messages smuggled in and out of Mountjoy. Lynch reassured his captive colleague that: “I have great hopes that as a result of our action that your life will be spared as that of many others. I assure you nothing will be left be undone.”

That the need for such actions had come about in the first place was a source of great indignation to Lynch: “It is outrageous to bring you to trial under your present physical condition but they have done such barbarous acts that they may stop at nothing.”[11]

The IRA finally bagged a catch on the 30th January when John Bagwell, a Senator in the Free State as well as Manager of the Great Northern Railway, was led away at gunpoint while walking home to Howth. The Free State authorities had been silent on the previous abduction attempts on Dineen and Gogarty but now that one had succeeded, Major-General Dan Hogan hastened to remove all doubt as to the consequences:

NOW WARNING is hereby Given that, in the event of the said Senator John Bagwell not being set, unharmed, at liberty, and permitted to return to his own home, within 48 hours of the date and hour of this Proclamation, Punitive Action will be taken against several associates in this conspiracy, now in custody and otherwise.[12]

Published in the newspapers, this notice, with its undercurrent of menace, could scarcely be missed. Hogan underlined his intentions by gathering into Mountjoy about forty of the most prominent IRA prisoners. If anything happened to Bagwell, so said the unspoken threat, these would be first to feel the promised punitive action.[13]

Punishment as Deserved

Lynch strove to be equally pugnacious. A letter of his own to the press, signed on the 1st February, a day after Hogan’s proclamation, warned that:

We hereby give notice that we shall not give up our hostages, and if the threatened action be taken we shall hold every member of the said Junta, and its so-called Parliament, Senate and other House, and all their executives, responsible and shall certainly visit them with the punishment they deserve.[14]

This deadly game of brinkmanship was bloodlessly broken when Bagwell reappeared at the Kildare Street Club in Dublin. Kept in a farmhouse, he had waited until the morning of the 6th February, when he had returned to his room after breakfast while his captors were busy eating theirs, carefully opening a window to climb out.

A cross-country runner, he was soon able to put some distance between him and his prison. After several miles of countryside, he chanced the highway and flagged down a motorist who drove him the rest of the way to Dublin. He departed for London the next day.

“It was stated that the Senator’s visit was strictly unofficial,” read the Irish Times, “and that for obvious reasons, he did not desire his whereabouts to be known.”[15]

The Personal Touch

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Dr George Sigerson

The campaign against Free State personnel continued, such as when Dr George Sigerson, the acting chairman for the Senate, resigned in early February 1923 after receiving a letter that threatened to burn his home down. Faced with such desertions, the Government hastened to stem the exodus and keep its representatives on board – and in line. Sometimes the personal touch was enough, such as when another senator was dissuaded from following Sigerson in resigning after a friendly heart-to-heart with Blythe.

Frank Bulfin was not treated quite so amiably. A group of three men – one of them being Joe O’Reilly, a former gunman in Michael Collins’ ‘Squad’ – tracked down Bulfin after the TD for Leix-Offaly privately expressed his intentions to step down from his seat. According to Blythe, Buflin plaintively asked the trio if he was under arrest. They told him he was not, although the bulges in their coats that hinted that the revolvers beneath did nothing to reassure the TD. Nor did the following:

They told him it would be advisable for him to come to town. Bulfin thereupon entered to motor with them; and somewhere along the road they performed a charade, which certainly shook him.

They stopped the car and one of them proposed that they “shoot the oul’ bastard and have no more trouble with him”. Another agreed that it would be the simplest procedure, while a third, ostensibly more cautious, argued that Cosgrave would be so annoyed with them that they would be in endless trouble.

After what appeared to be a long wrangle, the fellow who was against such bloodshed seemingly succeeded in restraining the others, and Bulfin was put back in the motor car and brought to town.

By the time Bulfin was brought before President W.T. Cosgrave, Bulfin had obligingly changed his mind about quitting. “We had no other incidents of the kind,” Blythe noted coolly. “I suppose Frank’s story got round amongst the T.D.’s.”[16]

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W.T. Cosgrave

Both sides were displaying a penchant for intimidation. The main difference was that the Pro-Treatyites proved better at it. No further kidnappings were attempted after Bagwell. In light of Hogan’s threats, it can be speculated as to whether the senator was allowed to abscond in order to avert the promised ‘punitive actions’ without a complete loss of face. In the test of wills, with hostages used like human poker chips, the IRA had crapped out.

As it turned out, O’Malley would never be declared fit for trial, thus saved from a court-martial and an almost certain firing squad. But, even under the shadow of death, he never lost his composure, maintaining that in the big picture, he and his fellow POWs no longer mattered: “We are out of the fight and it does not matter what the enemy do to us.” He was more concerned that others might “take the line of least resistance and surrender.”[17]

Because not all of the imprisoned IRA officers had been as sanguine as O’Malley or as certain as Lynch that victory remained forthcoming. Breaking ranks, Liam Deasy had taken a step that not only forced the Anti-Treatyites to revaluate their chances but shook Lynch on a very personal level.

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The ruins of Moore Hall, Co. Mayo, one of the many ‘Big Houses’ burnt by the IRA during the Civil War

Liam Deasy

On the 9th February, under the headline REMARKABLE PEACE PROPOSALS, the Irish Times told of how Liam Deasy, the IRA Deputy Chief of Staff – having been arrested on the 18th January near Cahir, Co. Tipperary, and sentenced to death seven days later – had put his name to the following document.

I have undertaken, for the future of Ireland, to accept and aid in an immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, and have signed the following statement: –

I accept, and I will aid immediate and unconditional surrender of all arms and men, as requested by General Mulcahy.

(Signed) Liam Deasy

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Liam Deasy

Accompanying this bombshell was a longer and more personal statement from Deasy to explain his decision. His calls for a surrender was not based on the fear of defeat, he wrote; indeed, Deasy insisted that the Anti-Treatyites could continue their military campaign for years. But so could the Free State and, with the Government policy of executions, the conflict was descending into “a vendetta, the development of which would bring family against family rather than soldier against soldier.”

He had been dwelling on this sordid situation for some time and had “decided that the interests of freedom would not be best served by continuation of hostilities, and was prepared to advocate a cessation on defined lines when prevented by my arrest.”

Remarkable Peace Proposals

Despite such stated doubts, Deasy strove to present a picture of a man very much unbroken. He blamed the coarsening of the conflict solely on the Free State in its treatment of POWs. While admitting that his action might appear inconsistent with his past gung-ho behaviour, he could “only trust that comrades with whom I have worked in the past will understand the motives which influenced this action of mine.”

Deasy concluded with a rallying cry for the future and the hope that things would work themselves out:

To the Army of the Republic the ultimate aim will be a guide likewise to methods and the inspiration of those many brave comrades already fallen, and to whom we owe a duty, will strengthen our hand in the final advance to victory.

Regardless, one critical fact could not be disputed: a senior officer in the IRA had publicly collapsed, to use a word of O’Malley’s, through ‘funk’.

mulcahy046Others picked up on Deasy’s example. A signed statement from twelve prisoners held in Limerick, claiming to represent six hundred others, asked for four of their number to be paroled in order to meet with their commanders still at liberty and discuss a possible end to hostilities. Sensing weakness, the Government offered an olive-branch in the form of an amnesty – signed by its Commander-in-Chief, Richard Mulcahy – to enemy combatants on condition of them surrendering with their weapons on or before the 18th February.[18]

A Satisfactory Position

Lynch replied swiftly and predictably. Delivered to the press on the 9th February, the day after Deasy’s statements were, Lynch’s written response was curtly matter-of-fact:

I am to inform you officially, on behalf of the Government and Army Command that the proposals contained in your circular letter on 29th January and the enclosure cannot be considered.

As in the case of all officers captured by the enemy, an officer has taken charge of [Deasy’s] recent command.[19]

Privately, Lynch had a good deal more to say. In a personal letter addressed to Deasy, he lambasted his former confidant for impacting on a situation that had been, Lynch was sure, won in all but name:

Before you took action our position was most satisfactory from every point of view and that of the enemy quite the opposite. Your misguided action will cause us a certain set-back, but this will be got over and the war urged more vigorously than ever. It is clear you did not realise the actual fact and that at most you only took the local view into consideration.

Still, Lynch was not so enraged that he could not add: “Hoping that peace will soon be attained and that your life will be spared to the Nation.”[20]

Lynch consoled himself with the thought that Deasy’s apostasy would have little effect on the rest of the IRA. In this, he was probably correct, in the opinion of his aide, Todd Andrews, if only because those still fighting had been benumbed to anything short of complete disaster.[21]

Todd Andrews

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Todd Andrews in later years

When Christopher “Todd” Andrews received a summons to Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, to see his Chief of Staff, he could only wonder what for. That Lynch knew of his existence at all was a surprise in itself. The only time they had ever met – if ‘met’ was not too strong a word – was prior to the Civil War. Andrews had been performing clerical duties in the Four Courts as part of its IRA garrison when Lynch stuck his head into his office, giving Andrews a pleasant smile when he saw there was no one else there, and departed without a word.[22]

Still, an order was an order. Not wanting to keep his superior waiting, Andrews set off from South Wexford where he had been serving as part of its IRA brigade. Rain had begun to fall by then, in early February, and Andrews and the driver assigned to take him were soon soaked to the skin. A flooded road ahead forced them to take shelter for the night, with Andrews ferried across the swollen Barrow River the next morning.

Brought to a large country house, Andrews found Lynch in the parlour, seated by a table heaped with papers. Even years later, Andrews still vividly remembered the appearance of his commanding officer:

Liam was a handsome, six-foot-tall man, oval-faced with a noticeably high forehead from which light brown hair was slightly receding, although at this time he was only twenty-nine years old. Being short-sighted, he wore thick-lensed, gold-rimmed spectacles.

Despite their difference in rank, Lynch greeted the newcomer in a friendly manner, introducing him to the third man in the parlour, Dr Con Lucey. A licensed physician, Dr Lucey served as the IRA Director of Medicine while doubling as Lynch’s secretary and driver.

Harsh Truths

After some small talk and tea, Lynch got down to business. He planned on travelling to Cork ‘to pull the South together’, as he put it, and wanted Andrews to accompany him as his adjutant. Flattered by the offer, and more than a little awed by the other man, Andrews was surprised further when Lynch asked for his opinion on the state of the war.

Andrews had not thought his views as a mere rank-and-filer could be worth much. But he had had the chance to study the fighting in different areas and at various times, allowing him to draw a number of conclusions, which he provided unsparingly to Lynch:

As far as I had the opportunity to observe at first hand, the military situation was going very badly. Nothing, of course, was happening north of the [Ulster] Border and between Dublin and the Border, except for Frank Aiken’s men, the IRA had virtually ceased to exist. I told him that I thought the Dublin Brigade was so reduced in personnel as to be militarily ineffective.

I related my experiences of the South Wexford men and the high opinion I formed of their quality and morale, but my information was that there was nothing to be hoped from Carlow, Kilkenny or North Wexford.

Lynch took all of this in his stride. A ‘glass half full’ person, he chose to be encouraged by the compliments his new adjutant paid to the South Wexford IRA rather than consider too deeply the rest of what had been said. Lynch said he felt certain he could put things to right once he was based again in the South, the part of the country he was most familiar with.

Andrews was not so sure. That their Director of Medical Services was also sharing in the duties of Lynch’s Man Friday did not strike him as the best advertisement for their organisational abilities but that was one thought he kept to himself.[23]

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IRA Flying Column

‘A Simple, Uncomplicated Man’

Lynch could take some solace from his toils in the company of his new adjutant. The two men quickly bonded, Lynch being amused at Andrews’ often sardonic commentary on rural mores, delivered in his thick Dublin accent. That Andrews was not afraid to voice his opinions allowed the normally reserved Lynch to open up – and he had a lot on his mind to say.

He did not hate his enemies in the Free State. Instead, he felt only sadness that they should have dishonoured their nation so. That Collins had signed the Treaty in the first place, and thus keep Ireland under the British Crown, was a source of horrified wonder to Lynch, as was the increasing savagery of the Free State in its shooting of prisoners.

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Staged firing-squad by the National Army

As incomprehensible such behaviour was to Lynch, Andrews was equally baffled at how the Chief of Staff could be so oblivious to the severity of their military situation. “He had developed some mental blockage which prevented him from believing that we could be beaten,” Andrews concluded. Lynch expressed more concern at the insulting use of the term ‘irregulars’ towards his forces – as if name-calling was a step too far alongside executions and murder – than he did at the impending possibility of defeat.

To the self-consciously worldly Andrews, his commander was a study in innocence:

He had no sophistication in any field; he was a simple, uncomplicated man, believing in God, the Blessed Virgin and the Saints and, loving Ireland as he did, he had dedicated his life to her under God.

In keeping with such piety, Lynch would kneel to recite a decade of the Rosary every night before bed. Bitter at the clergy for their denunciations of the IRA from the pulpit, Andrews declined to join in these devotions, considering himself no longer a follower of Holy Mother Church. It was the only point of contention between the pair, with Lynch explaining to Andrews the distinction between the principles of the Catholic faith and the temporal politics by men of religion. [24]

The only indulgence Andrews saw Lynch partake of – besides excessive optimism – was a small whiskey in a roadside pub. Even that one occasion was the exception as, on every other time, Lynch had declined any alcohol offered in the houses he stayed in.[25]

Southwards

As promised, Lynch travelled south, Andrews by his side, leaving Leighlinbridge for the Nire Valley and then to the Glen of Aherlow, Co. Tipperary, where he was due to meet Con Moloney. A Munster man to the core, Lynch was invigorated by being back on home territory, the company of his own people a welcome tonic to the months of hardship and disappointment.

But there was no time for dilly-dallying. After four or five days in the Glen, with Moloney nowhere to be seen, Lynch took off for West Cork to put a dampener on some unauthorised peace talks he had caught wind of. He left Andrews with instructions to inform Moloney, when he finally appeared, of his decision to set up base in the South where he could continue directing the war.

When Andrews learnt that Moloney had been picked up in one of the National Army’s sweeps, he realised that Lynch’s plan of ‘pulling the South together’ from Tipperary was already defunct. Any IRA structure there had collapsed into a desperate struggle by individuals just to survive.[26]

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IRA members

When Andrews rejoined the Chief of Staff in Ballinyeary, he found Lynch at a table surrounded by papers and maps, Dr Lucey typing away at a side table, much like their first meeting. As before, Lynch received him warmly. He was unsurprised at the loss of Moloney and also undismayed when Andrews reported on the general state of disarray amongst the Tipperary IRA.

Lynch refrained from mentioning – Andrews learnt this from Lucey instead – about his muster with the staff and officers – those who were left – of the First Southern Division on the 26th February. Not only had they told him facts he had no wish to hear, they had pressed him into something he had been putting off for some time.[27]

The First Southern Division

One misunderstanding Lynch had been keen to correct to the assembled delegates from the Cork and Kerry brigades – fourteen in all, including him – was that it had been Éamon de Valera who had turned down their initial request for an Executive meeting. While Lynch stressed the relationship between the IRA and de Valera’s government-in-exile as a tight one, he left the others in no doubt as to which wing of the republican struggle held the upper hand.

“The President was of great assistance,” Lynch assured them, “but had no authority to interfere in Army matters and he (C/S) was alone responsible for summoning Executive.”

Lynch had postponed a second meeting of the IRA Executive – the first had been four months before in October 1922 – due to the importance, he said, of officers remaining in their own brigade areas with no distractions. Also, Lynch had been on the move and so missed the correspondence from the First Southern Division about their desire for an Executive session.

It was a wishy-washy response on Lynch’s part – he had turned down the chance for an Executive meeting, yet could not be blamed for not calling another – but the other men seemed to let it pass. There was, after all, more to discuss, which boiled down to two points: the reaction to the Divisional ranks to Deasy’s surrender appeal and the state of morale otherwise.

The good news was that it was unanimously agreed that the former had had little effect. The bad was that no one present, save for Lynch, thought they had a chance of surviving through the summer, let alone of winning.

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Officers in the First Southern Division posing before the Mansion House, Dublin, in March 1922. Liam Lynch is seated in the front row, fourth from the left, with Liam Deasy fifth.

Great Hopes for the Future

“If the enemy pressure is maintained we can’t last and will be wiped out in a short time” was the verdict from the O/C of the First Kerry Brigade. Whether large operations or smaller-scale reprisals, any action on his unit’s part was impossible given its poverty of resources compared to the Free State’s, whose “steam rolling of the South would soon finish us,” he gloomily predicted.

The Divisional Director of Operations was of like mind and spread some of the blame on the other areas: “The whole position of the South depends on the rest of the country and the relief it can give us. All Brigades agree a summer campaign is impossible and if the rest of the country fails we cannot exist.”

He also pointed that the National Army had recruited up to 20,000 extra men. The Free State could keep resistance in the South pinned down and still have the numbers to focus on the rest of the country.

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IRA Flying Column

Lynch took tall his naysaying in his stride. Having done his best listening impression, he told the others that he:

…quite realised the position in the South and the morale and suffering of the men and officers. It was in the South that the British were beaten and felt the attitude of the enemy towards the men who won the war for them. He reviewed the position in the rest of the country and although the position in the South was pretty bad he felt the situation in general was very good and held great hopes for the future.

He would not be continuing the war if he did not think they could win, Lynch assured them. None of those present appeared convinced, though no one had the gumption to openly doubt Lynch’s cheery forecast. Some instead took refuge in a grim fatalism, such as the O/C of the Third Cork Brigade who declared that his men would plough on “until beaten which is not far off.”

One common demand was for the overdue Executive meeting for which they had previously asked. That way, it was hoped that there could be a chance to clear the air and ask the necessary questions as to what to do next.[28]

Lynch left the meeting with a certain amount of distaste for the outspokenness he had encountered. To him, such reluctance to keep quiet and press on was perilously close to mutiny. “What they mean by acting on their views, I cannot understand,” he complained in a letter to Con Moloney on the 29th February, three days after the pow-wow. “However, I hope we are now done with it.”

As for the doom and gloom on display, it had been for Lynch to endure, not seriously consider. Writing again to Moloney on the 2nd March, he said, unaware of how his recipient had five days left before capture: “I still have an optimistic view of the situation; if we can hold the Army fast all will be well.”[29]

The Extracurricular Activities of Tom Barry

PJ_Ruttledge
P.J. Ruttledge

Another thorn in Lynch’s side was Tom Barry. P.J. Ruttledge, a prominent member of the Mayo IRA who spent much of the Civil War by Lynch’s side, remembered the celebrated hero of the famous West Cork flying column as being “always very annoying to Liam Lynch.”

His renown seemingly gone to his bushy head, Barry would sneer at others for their lack of pluck, while simultaneously insisting that the war was lost and it was time to surrender. While not incorrect, his abrasive manner did him no favours, and neither did the discovery that the Free State, according to Ruttledge, granted Barry carte blanche to travel as he pleased in the hope that he would win others to his point of view.[30]

Frank Aiken, an Armagh-born member of the IRA Executive, also remembered how “Mr. Barry’s activities at that time [February 1923] were a source of great worry to the then Chief of Staff”, and that Lynch had written to Aiken, complaining at how “Barry is doing his worst here.”[31]

Barry was assisted in ‘his worst’ by Father Tom Duggan, a priest broadminded enough to have been a chaplain in the British Army despite his staunchly republican views. This forbearance helped make Father Duggan liked and trusted by everyone, with the notable exception of Lynch, who made it clear both to the priest and Barry that no backtracking on the Republic was going to happen on his watch.

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Father Thomas Duggan

To punctuate the point, he wrote a strongly-worded letter, ordering his subordinate to cease and desist in his crusade for peace. The headstrong, increasingly independent Barry was proving to be, in his own way, just as much a nuisance as Deasy’s letter of surrender.

But, unlike poor, beaten Deasy, Barry was not someone Lynch could just brush aside.

‘A Tirade of Abuse’

Lynch probably assumed that his letter would be the end of the matter; that is, until the door to his bedroom for the night was kicked open, startling both him and Andrews. The adjutant’s first thought at seeing the figure in the doorway, a lighted candle in one hand and a sheet of papers in the other, was that the Free Staters had found them at last.

Instead, it was an incandescent Barry. He was waving the letter while demanding to know if Lynch had written it. When Lynch gave the briefest of answers in the affirmative, the floodgates opened:

Then followed a tirade of abuse from Barry mainly directed at asserting the superiority of his fighting record. Barry’s peroration was dramatic: ‘I fought more in a week than you did in your life.’ Liam simply said nothing. Having emptied himself of indignation, Barry withdrew, slamming the door.

Andrews could not help but laugh. It all seemed too much like something out of a theatrical comedy.

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Tom Barry

The mood between Barry and his nominal superior had scarcely improved when they met later in Ballingeary. When Lynch, Andrews and Dr Lucey arrived, they found Barry and Father Duggan, along with several others, already present on the other side of the street. The tension was palatable and, once again, Andrews drew comparisons to fiction, the scene resembling to him “a Western film where rival groups of ranchers come into some cowtown to shoot out their differences.”

Thankfully, the proceedings did not become that bad but, by the time the two parties withdrew, nothing between them had been resolved. There was no change in IRA policy, contrary to what Barry and Father Duggan had been pushing for, so in that regard Lynch had had his way – for now.[32]

A Republican Itch

Barry’s frustrations did not stop him from being a consummate professional when called upon. Travelling on board a lorry with Lynch and his entourage to the Executive conclave, to be held once again in Co. Tipperary, Barry impressed Andrews with his care and dedication as he dismounted at every crossroads in order to ensure there were no ambushes-in-waiting. The mood inside the vehicle was a jovial one, the others amused at Barry’s take-charge attitude.

After stopping for the night, Lynch allowed a sickly-looking and careworn Andrews to stay behind. Like Deasy, Andrews had developed the ‘Republican itch’ or scabies, an infliction which Lynch remained serenely untouched by despite the two men sharing a bed. Quietly relieved at being spared a journey over the Knockmealdown Mountains, with the inevitable hell it would play on his sores, Andrews made no complaint and gratefully accepted the five-pound note Lynch handed him for expenses.

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Knockmealdown Mountains

Before they separated for the last time, he and Lynch were able to enjoy one last chat. Lynch made it clear that he had not wanted the Executive meeting. He had not even wanted the Republican government-in-exile that the Anti-Treatyites had set up. Both bodies posed the danger that they would force some kind of compromise peace, the very last thing Lynch would ever agree to. Not that he was overly concerned, assuming as he did that whatever doubts and dissensions thrown his way would be brazened out.

New Orders

Then Lynch dropped a bombshell. Andrews, he said, was to be assigned to take change of the West, where he was resting his hopes for a republican comeback. Having never held as much as a modest command nor even crossed the Shannon, Andrews could not help but wonder what Lynch was thinking:

I suppose I should have been flattered that the Chief of Staff should have viewed me in these favourable terms; I always thought that he regarded me as a reliable dogsbody, agreeable and sometimes amusing. On reflection, I didn’t take his remarks too seriously, feeling sure that with second thoughts he would realize the absurdity of the idea or, if not, someone would surely point it out to him.[33]

Or so Andrews hoped. O’Malley had been equally flummoxed when Lynch assigned him to the organisation of the IRA in Ulster and Leinster, areas that he, like Andrews and the West, felt entirely unsuited for. Promoting people outside their comfort zones was clearly something of a habit for Lynch. Perhaps he saw only the best in them. Alternatively, he might have been lacking anyone else.

However, despite his perceived shortcomings, O’Malley had performed reasonably well under the circumstances. Andrews might have done just as well, so Lynch’s instincts could have been correct at least on those occasions.[34]

The Executive Meets

On the 23rd March, the IRA Executive assembled at Bliantas, west of the Nire Valley. Due to enemy presence, the attendees were obliged to move deeper into the Valley on the 25th, where they continued in Glenanore until the 26th. For all the difficulties, a reasonably sized number had managed to attend, such as Lynch, Barry, Tom Crofts, Seán MacSwiney, Humphrey Murphy, Bill Quirke and Seán Hyde.

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Nire Valley

Also there was de Valera, although it first had to be agreed whether he could sit in on the conclave. The President of the Republic waited outside until votes were taken for his admission, albeit without voting rights.[35]

Nothing better illustrated de Valera’s powerlessness and failure to be anything other than a reluctant observer. When Lynch received word in February 1923 that the president was attempting to again use his ‘Document No. 2’ as an alternative to the Treaty, he wrote sharply, warning de Valera that “your publicity as to sponsoring Document No. 2 has had a very bad effect on army and should have been avoided.”

It was the same line Lynch had taken with Deasy: it was all great until you complained, and now everything wrong is your fault. He added cuttingly to de Valera: “We can arrange peace without reference to past documents.”[36]

mi-de-valera
Éamon de Valera

For all the degradation he had so far endured, de Valera made the most of his opportunity before the Executive, proposing certain terms with which peace with the Free State could be negotiated. To the surprise of no one, Lynch was adamantly opposed, as convinced as ever that victory was achievable.

According to one second-hand account who heard about the meeting afterwards: “He was more determined now at the end of the war than at the beginning.”

When Barry raised a motion that “in the opinion of the Executive, further armed resistance and operations against the F.S. Government will not further the cause of independence of the country”, it was defeated by six votes to five. Lynch had provided the deciding vote.

Back in the IRA Convention of June 1922, it had been Barry who had helped scupper Lynch’s plans for a reunification of the sundered IRA, the last ditch effort for a peaceful solution. Now Lynch had returned the favour.

Divergence

Once again, Lynch had sidestepped the doubts of others and ensured that, by concluding on nothing, the meeting would make no difference to the war effort. But that so many were leaning towards some – any – kind of compromise meant that Lynch was not as in control of the Executive as he would have liked.

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Austin Stack

His own Deputy, Frank Aiken, openly agitated for de Valera’s suggestions in a foreshadowing of the political relationship to come. Austin Stack’s contribution was to argue for the IRA to stop fighting, but not to end the war per se, without explaining how these two opposing concepts could be met. It was typical of the disarray and confusion afflicting the anti-Treaty command.

“It proved impossible to reconcile the divergent views held by members of the Executive,” was how Florence O’Donoghue, Lynch’s friend and biographer, put it.[37]

In a strange sense, history was repeating itself. Lynch had also struggled to rein in his Executive in the months leading up to the Civil War. The main difference was that then he had been regarded as unduly moderate, a sell-out in the making. Now the roles had been reversed and it was Lynch who was rejecting any deviations from the straight and narrow, regardless of what others wanted.[38]

Waiting for Miracles

sean-moylan-memoirsFor want of anything else to say, it was agreed to hold another Executive meeting for the 10th April. To many, this might have seemed like nothing more than the dragging out of the inevitable. For Lynch, it had bought enough time for the Western resurgence he had spoken about to Andrews to start making a difference.

Another iron in the fire was the field artillery Lynch was expecting. He had assigned Seán Moylan to the United States in November 1922 to act as a liaison officer with sympathetic Irish-American groups. The Americans were to raise the funds that would be passed on to Germany for the purchase and later transport of the weapons.

Lynch was specific in his requests – four mountain batteries of artillery, with four guns to a battery, and as much ammunition as could be bought. Lynch predicated to Moylan that these “would completely demoralise enemy and end the war,” envisioning how it would only take one such weapon, shared between the IRA, to do the trick.

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Joseph McGarrity, a contact of Moylan’s in America

Such was his certainty that he felt entitled to quibble over the cost. Professing himself surprised at how much money he was told would be needed, he instructed Moylan not to worry over quantity. After all, “a big cargo is not required; even a few, with sufficient shells, would finish up the business here.”[39]

In the end, none of these miracle weapons ever appeared. Neither did the all-conquering legions from the West. Perhaps these failures would have finally convinced Lynch of the hard truth before him. Perhaps not.

Crohan West

In the fortnight before the next Executive conclave, Lynch took refuge in a number of safe-houses. The most impressive was a converted cowshed near Mullinahone, Co. Tipperary, artfully designed for concealment:

The whole building was about thirty feet long and ten wide, with corrugated iron walls and a roof partly of thatch and partly of corrugated iron. Access to the hiding place was from inside the cow shed, so that no trace led to it from outside, and the entrance was so cleverly constructed in what was apparently the inside of the end wall that it could not be opened except by one who knew the secret.[40]

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Tom Derrig

In the meantime, Tom Derrig was captured in Dublin on the 6th April, during which he was shot and wounded in the jaw. “It is understood that the authorities attach a considerable importance to Mr Derrig’s arrest,” wrote the Irish Times, as well the authorities might, for Derrig marked the fourth loss of an IRA Executive member, after O’Malley, Deasy and Moloney.[41]

In a move more humiliating than harmful, but no less damaging, captured minutes for the First Second Division and the Executive meetings were published on the 8th April. The discord inside the anti-Treaty leadership between the die-hards, such as Lynch, and those who had had enough, like Barry and de Valera, were now exposed for all to see.[42]

Before departing from his converted cowshed, Lynch had the heel of his boot fixed. A leather strap was found and used to bind his papers together. With these final details seen to, he and his party set off with a few others towards the meeting.[43]

The group of six – Lynch, Aiken, Bill Quirke, Seán O’Meara, Jerry Frewen and Seán Hyes – reached the foot of the Knockmealdown Mountains, where they spent the night in a friendly house. At 4 am on the 10th April, the scouts posted outside alerted them to the presence of an enemy column on the road to nearby Goatenbridge, forcing them to relocate to another house higher up on the mountain of Crohan West.

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Croahn West, Knockmealdown Mountains

When daylight came, the men looked down on the valley and saw that the Free Staters were now in sufficient numbers to form three columns. They were not overly concerned, assuming that the Pro-Treatyites were merely on a routine patrol and would soon pass by.

It was classic Lynch. He had been underestimating the opposite side and overestimating his own since day one. The IRA men were settling down for a cup of tea at 8 am when a sentry rushed in to tell them that one of the columns was heading directly for them.

On the Run

Seeking the high ground, the six men dashed towards Crohan West. With only two revolvers between them, Lynch sent word to the two scouts posted elsewhere to come and join them. One had a Thompson machine gun and the other a rifle, with the power and range to better their odds. While they waited at the head of the glen and with neither of the scouts yet to be seen, the Free Staters appeared over a rise.

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National Army soldiers

As shots were exchanged, the Anti-Treatyites fell back towards Crohan West, taking advantage of the cover afforded by a shallow riverbed until they had no choice but to dash across open ground. Seizing their chance, the Free Staters fired at the exposed men as quickly as their rifles allowed from between three and four hundred yards away. Their targets shot back ineffectively with their revolvers, more to distract than out of any real hope of causing harm.

Lynch was already winded from the run, prompting Hydes to take him by the hand and hurry him along. The firing had abruptly ceased, as if both sides were holding their breath, when a single shot rang out. Lynch fell.

“My God! I’m hit, lads!” he cried.

Scarcely believing their foul luck, the others went to Lynch’s side. Seeing their targets grouping together, the Free Staters below renewed their volleys. With no time for anything else, the party carried their stricken leader, with one reciting, and Lynch repeating, the Act of Contrition. In terrible pain, his misery worsened by the motion, Lynch begged his companions several times to leave him until, saying – an optimist to the end – that the Staters might be able to bandage him.

Finally, the other five let him down and made the harsh decision to do what he said. Pausing only to pick up his gun and the documents, they continued in their flight across the mountain until finally out of sight and range.

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Frank Aiken

“It would be impossible to describe our agony of mind in thus parting with our comrade and chief,” Aiken later wrote. He could not even bring himself to say farewell to Lynch lest the moment be too much. None of them see a reason why Lynch alone had been hit other than the implacable, inscrutable will of God. It seemed to Aiken as good an explanation as any.[44]

 “I am Liam Lynch”

Forcing their way through the thick undergrowth of brushwood that provided the only cover on that bleak mountaintop, the forty green-coated soldiers pressed on uphill. They found a man lying face up, cushioned by some shrubbery, his clothes dark with blood.

“Are you de Valera?” one of the soldiers asked him.

“I am not,” the stricken man replied. He sounded more weary than anything else. “I am Liam Lynch.”

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Cloe-up of Crohan West

Lynch had not even been spared the final indignity of mistaken identity, being confused with someone he had regarded as a figurehead at best, a nuisance at worst. He spoke little else as his captors carried him down the mountain in a litter to the village of Newcastle, where a priest and a physician administrated some spiritual and medical aid respectively. A National Army doctor who arrived soon after found two bullet wounds on either side of the wounded man, between his rib cage and hip, caused by the same bullet tearing through.

When the two doctors agreed that their patient would have to be moved to better facilities, an ambulance drove Lynch to the military ward of St Joseph’s Hospital in Clonmel, where he died almost three hours later, just before 9 pm. Death was ruled to be a result of shock and haemorrhaging. He was twenty-nine.

Among Lynch’s last recorded statements was: “You missed Dev by a few minutes.”

Searching the area further, soldiers found in a nearby farmhouse an assortment of clothing items such as hats and coats. It was concluded that the anti-Treaty conference had been in the process of assembling, and that if the National Army had struck half an hour later, it might have caught more than the one man they did.[45]

Still, it was no less a significant catch. “The death of Liam Lynch removes one of the most important – if he was not actually the most important – of the leaders of the Republican party,” wrote the Irish Times, which described him as “the most obstinate and unflinching of the Government’s opponents.”[46]

Lynch, Dead
Liam Lynch in his coffin

Aftermath

“Poor Liam, God rest him,” wrote O’Malley from Mountjoy, two days later on the 12th April. While he was sure that Aiken would do well as the new Chief of Staff, Lynch had had:

…an intimate knowledge of the South and a general knowledge of the personnel in all areas which Aiken has not and would not have for another twelve months, so really there is no one fit to step into his shoes. It’s the biggest blow by far we have received.[47]

The difference between the two men would become even more apparent by the end of the month, when Aiken, working in tandem with de Valera, signed an order for the suspension of hostilities, to take effect on the 30th April. Meanwhile, de Valera was opening negotiations with the Free State.[48]

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Frank Aiken (left) and Éamon de Valera (right)

Even when this political outreach proved fruitless, Aiken showed no desire to return to the fighting. On the 24th May, he ordered all IRA units to dump their weapons, signalling the end of the Civil War at long last.[49]

Aiken intended for this to be a respite, not a surrender. “They are quite wrong if they think they have heard the last of the IRA and the Irish Republic,” he wrote to Lynch’s brother on July 1923. Lynch would have been horrified all the same but Aiken, unlike his late predecessor, was able to differentiate between what he wanted and what was possible.[50]

References

[1] Irish Times, 15/01/1923

[2] Ibid

[3] Blythe, Ernest (BMH / WS 939), p. 176

[4] Ibid, p. 178

[5] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 340

[6] Ibid, p. 347

[7] Ibid, p. 172

[8] Ibid, pp. 530, 533-4

[9] Palenham, Frank and O’Neill, Thomas P. Eamon de Valera (London: Hutchinson and co, 1970), p. 208

[10] Ibid, p. 348

[11] Ibid, p. 349

[12] Irish Times, 03/02/1923

[13] Blythe, p. 176

[14] Irish Times, 02/02/1923

[15] Ibid, 10/02/1923

[16] Blythe, pp. 176-8

[17] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 359

[18] Irish Times, 09/02/1923

[19] Ibid, 10/02/1923

[20] National Library of Ireland (NLI), Ernie O’Malley Papers, MS 10,973/16/4

[21] Andrews, C.S., Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 288

[22] Ibid, pp. 237, 286

[23] Ibid, pp. 287-9

[24] Ibid, pp. 290-2

[25] Ibid, 303

[26] Ibid, pp. 292, 294-5

[27] Ibid, p. 298

[28] NLI, Ernie O’Malley Papers, MS 10,973/7/42

[29] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 297

[30] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014), pp. 274, 279

[31] Irish Press, 06/06/1935

[32] Andrews, pp. 229-301

[33] Ibid, pp. 299, 302-4

[34] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), pp. 180-1

[35] Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 237

[36] Pakenham and O’Neill, p. 215

[37] O’Donoghue, pp. 299-301 ; MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 146-7

[38] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40

[39] Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers: Revelations of the Irish Revolutionary movement in Ireland and America 1900-1940 (Tralee: Anvil Books, 1972), pp. 134-5

[40] O’Donoghue, p. 302

[41] Irish Times, 07/04/1923

[42] Irish Independent, 08/04/1923

[43] MacEoin, p 147

[44] Sinn Féin, 12/04/1924 ; NLI, Liam Lynch Papers, MS 36,251/30

[45] Irish Times, 12,13/04/1923

[46] Ibid, 11/04/1923

[47] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 371

[48] Irish Times, 28/04/1923

[49] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 377

[50] NLI, MS 36,251/30

Bibliography

Books

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

Cronin, Sean. The McGarrity Papers: Revelations of the Irish Revolutionary movement in Ireland and America 1900-1940 (Tralee, Anvil Books, 1972)

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

Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against Green: A History of the Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

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

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

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

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Keane, Vincent) The Men Will Talk to Me: Mayo Interviews (Cork: Mercier Press, 2014)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

Pakenham, Frank and O’Neill, Thomas P. Eamon de Valera (London: Hutchinson and co, 1970)

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Sinn Féin

Bureau of Military History Statement

Blythe, Ernest, WS 939

National Library of Ireland

Ernie O’Malley Papers

Liam Lynch Papers