Is it better to be feared or loved, asked the wise Italian. Both are nice but, if one had to choose, fear should be prized over love, for men are fickle in their affections, while everyone thinks twice when the consequences are sufficiently dire. Machiavelli may have passed a harsh judgement on human nature, but the dilemma he presented was one the nascent Free State was forced to confront upon the shootings of Séan Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille on the 7th December 1922, resulting in the death of the former and the wounding of the latter.
Both were TDs in the Dáil, with Ó Máille being no less its Deputy Speaker, and yet their ambush had been committed in broad daylight on a public street as part of a “carefully laid plan to annihilate this government,” announced Eoin MacNeill to the Dáil. It was a strong statement but, then, the Executive Council of the government in question, to which MacNeill belonged, was in a defensive mood, having just ordered the deaths of four imprisoned men in response.
Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Dick Barrett had been woken in their cells, briskly informed of their impending sentence and then taken out into the yard of Mountjoy Prison where a firing-squad did the rest. All four had been part of an armed campaign against the Free State but, while war is hell, “from a legal perspective,” writes historian Séan Enright:
…these men were executed without trial for acts committed by others…The new state was barely two days old and the Constitution guaranteed life, liberty, freedom of conscience and due process or at least trial by military court.
Such requirements the Executive Council had manifestly failed to uphold. Nonetheless, the reprisals had their desired result. Save for a couple of ineffectual pot-shots, there were no further assassination attempts on TDs of the Free State. “Is there no alternative?” Kevin O’Higgins had asked when the Council met to sign off on the executions. ‘No’ had been the answer.
Still, these four executions were the exception, not the rule, for the Free State was generally careful in ensuring that its death penalties fitted within the framework of the law. Which law, however, was a tricky question in itself.
Until the Irish Free State came officially into being on the 6th December 1922, the Provisional Government was obliged to rely on British legislation to fill the legal gap – except when that would be inconvenient, such as Count Plunkett bringing forward a claim of habeas corpus on behalf of his son, who was one of the anti-Treaty prisoners taken at the Four Courts in July 1922.
Judge Diarmuid Crowley deemed it satisfactory and issued a writ which threatened to set a precedence for every POW to be set free. Instead, Crowley found himself arrested and detained at Wellington Barracks, in a cell next to one where another prisoner was being subjected to, ahem, ‘enhanced interrogation’.
This was not the end of habeas corpus as a legal recourse: solicitors for Erskine Childers attempted it in a bid to avert his imminent execution, but Sir Charles O’Connor, as Master of the Rolls, simply brushed it aside on the grounds of the common good. “Suprema lex, salus populi must be the guiding principle when the civil law has failed,” Sir Charles ruled:
Force then becomes the only remedy, and to those whom the task is committed must be the sole judge of how it should be exercised…the salvation of the country depends upon it.
Childers had no one to blame but himself, Sir Charles continued, with his recourse to civil law being hypocritical given how such “jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war which he himself has helped to procure.” Sir Charles did not speak lightly; after all, the hearing was being held in the King’s Inns because the usual site of the Four Courts lay in ruins thanks to the war in question.
Ironically, Sir Charles had defeated an earlier regime by use of habeas corpus when, shortly after the Truce of 1921, he issued such a writ on behalf of an Irish Republican Army (IRA) prisoner due to be shot under British martial law. When this was refused, Sir Charles went further and issued another writ, this time for the arrest of the army generals accountable.
The military gave way and released the prisoner, a precedence that looked to unravel its counter-insurgency strategy should war resume. The Irish Provisional Government was clearly not going to risk the same thing happening on its watch, as Sir Charles shrewdly – if perhaps cynically – understood. He was an old legal face in a new system playing by new rules.
The Free State was thus cherry-picking which laws were opportune to apply while ignoring the rest. As always, cruel necessity was its defence. When presenting to the Dáil the case for establishing military courts with the power of life and death over POWs, Richard Mulcahy pointed to a couple of incidents where his soldiers had shot anti-Treaty captives out of hand.
Legalise, was his argument, for it is going to happen anyway in one form or another.
Much of this will be familiar to historians of the period, but Enright shines a torch on the legal aspects, making his readers see the topic in a new light: more than just another war but the struggle by one side to establish itself as the rule of law, by using the rule of law, even if it meant twisting the rules and discarding the law at will. How this will be addressed in the forthcoming centenary remains to be seen but, in any case, it was by these means that the Free State triumphed, albeit bloodily, not to say questionably as even the victors were aware.
The challenges of researching the conflict, as Enright observes, includes the paucity of reliable sources, due in no small part to the burning of sensitive documents just before Fianna Fáil took office in 1932. Succeeding in the Civil War did not prevent its winners from being voted out almost a decade later in favour of the losers, one of the many ironies of the times and which Machiavelli might have appreciated. Men, after all, are fickle in their affections.
The extent to which employers are accountable for the actions of their workers was put to the legal test in the Green Street Courthouse, Dublin, on the 18th July 1922. The claimant was the Freeman’s Journal, on whose behalf T.M. Healy, K.C., argued that, if there was ever a case in which Dublin Corporation should pay for damages, it was this one, considering how the man responsible for the “malicious and wanton destruction” of the newspaper’s offices four months ago was employed by that local government body.
“Who do you refer to?” asked the Court Recorder.
“I refer to Mr R. O’Connor,” replied Healy, “who is an engineer in the Corporation, who engineered this disaster to the Freeman’s Journal, and who is at present on leave at full salary.”
Healy then outlined the facts of the case: how, in the early hours of the 30th March, men disembarked from Crossley tenders outside the Freeman premises on Townsend Street, Dublin. Upon entering, they handed the startled staff a document that read:
Oglaigh na hEireann, General Headquarters, Dublin.
You are hereby notified that it has been deemed necessary to suspend publication of your journal in view of statements made therein, calculated to cause disaffection and indiscipline in the ranks of the Irish Republican Army.
By Order of the Army Executive.
With this touch of officialdom thus delivered, the intruders herded the personnel into a room and out of the way, before turning their attentions to the rest of the interior, using sledgehammers to smash fourteen linotype machines, three Hoe presses, the stereo plant and the Creed-Bille long distance telegraphic installation, the last presumably to stymie any calls to the fire brigade for what was about to happen next – the sprinkling of the paper stock with petrol, to which lit matches were then applied.
As if to drive the ideological point home, the portraits of Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith – two architects of the nascent Free State – on the wall were also destroyed. This was, at least, according to Healy, though the laughter in the courtroom suggests that this part of the story was not taken entirely at face value. After all, the Freeman had been the organ of the now-defunct Irish Parliamentary Party and was hardly likely to be overly reverential towards those who had overthrown it.
But the circumstances were otherwise sufficiently known, as was its eventual sequel, though Healy pulled no punches in describing how:
Subsequently Mr Rory O’Connor seized the Four Courts, with the result that now records, the most precious that any country could boast of, were all ruined at the hands of an official of the Dublin Corporation.
Which was an unfair remark, replied T.M. Sullivan, K.C. His client had not been paying Mr O’Connor, the man to whom the destruction that night was attributed, as much as a penny since December 1920, the time of his arrest by British forces during the last war. But – and this was the sticking point – Dublin Corporation had not actually dismissed him, then or now, leaving it liable for the misdeeds – at least, according to Healy – of an employee who was still on its books.
“I cannot tell,” replied a flustered Sullivan when pressed about this oversight. “It is all very well to be wise after the event. No one knew how things were going to develop.”
Allegiances Remade and Broken
Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as Sullivan complained, but, even before the simmering tensions over the Anglo-Irish Treaty boiled over into open conflict, there were more than enough red flags that all was not well in Ireland – and Rory O’Connor, as often as not, was the one waving them.
“His extreme attitude on this occasion came as something of a surprise to his associates,” remembered Piaras Béaslaí, who had been rescued twice from British captivity thanks to O’Connor. As a number of officers in the Irish Republican Army (IRA) went from hostility against the Treaty to outright rejection of the Dáil and the IRA GHQ, “Rory made himself their leader and spokesman, and proceeded to canvass and organise among the officers against the Treaty.”
The fruits of these labours were on full display at the Mansion House in Dublin, on the 26th March 1922, when two hundred and eleven delegates, representing IRA brigades and battalions from across Ireland, gathered for their Convention. This was despite the banning of the event of the Provisional Government, making attendance an act of defiance in itself.
“The convention itself was uneventful,” recalled Florence O’Donoghue, an intelligence officer in the Cork IRA, probably because anyone with serious qualms would have stayed away. This allowed resolutions to be passed unanimously but, while their wordings were simple and unadorned, they complicated the situation considerably:
That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.
That it shall be maintained as the Army of the Republic under an Executive appointed by the Convention.
Nowhere was there room for the Treaty, nor for any Provisional Government, Free State, GHQ or anything else that required obedience or consideration. There was only the Republic – and the sixteen men elected there and then to form the Executive in question.
Two days later, on the 28th March, the new Executive published a statement refuting the authority of Richard Mulcahy and Eoin O’Duffy, the Minister of Defence and Chief of Staff respectively, over the IRA – the parts of which had decided to join the Executive in resisting the Treaty, in any case. Which amounted to eighty percent of the original Army, at least according to Rory O’Connor, in an earlier press conference on the 22nd March.
This was quite a thing to say, as was O’Connor’s response to whether he was proposing a military dictatorship: “You can take it that way if you like.”
A Trial of Strength
Was that a statement of intent? A thoughtless flippancy? A slip of the tongue? And was O’Connor speaking for himself or relaying official policy? Even years afterwards, such questions remained murky, with implications that some who had shared O’Connor’s cause thought best to put some distance between themselves. O’Donoghue could not even bring himself to spell out in his later account exactly what O’Connor had said, only that:
How far his statement represented the views of all the officers associated with him on the anti-Treaty side of the Army it is now difficult to say, but it is reasonably certain that they did not accurately represent Liam Lynch’s position.
As O’Donoghue had been close to Lynch, who headed the Executive as its Chief of Staff, the idea of his friend as a Franco-in-waiting was a charge he was keen to defend against.
Todd Andrews, a Dublin IRA man who also attended the Convention, was similarly concerned in his own memoirs about how the remark might come across to his readers. To him, it had been “a bad political gaffe” from someone who “had no delegated authority.” All the same, Andrews wrote, in a passage that perhaps does his argument more harm than good:
In the spring of 1922 the idea of a military dictatorship in itself had not at all the frightening connotations it has now…Equally democracy had not been, as it since has been, elevated to the position of a goddess in the public mind. ‘The democratic process’ were words which would have fallen on uncomprehending ears in the Ireland of 1922.
Contemporary newspapers, however, showed they were taking O’Connor’s answer – whether gaffe or promise – to heart. “Today some munitious section of the Republican Army are holding a pistol at the Provisional Government’s head,” wrote the Irish Times. “Thus a trial of strength has been forced upon the Provisional Government in its most perilous hour.”
The Freeman’s Journal was more strident in its tone, comparing O’Connor to General Macready, the head of the British forces which were withdrawing from Ireland after failing to suppress it. “As a military dictator, Mr Rory O’Connor will be no more acceptable to the people than the departing General,” it promised. O’Connor had just become the public face of the crisis threatening to engulf the country: “It is a short drop from undemocratic incivism into a hell of militarism and turmoil.”
Faced with the challenge, the Freeman knew in whose camp it was: “The Irish democracy will stand by Dail Eireann, and will be as staunch in its support as in the days when An Dail confronted the British forces.”
The Power of the Sledge
Little wonder, then, that O’Connor or his allies had scant love for the Freeman. But it was its publication on the 29th March 1922, three days after the Convention, that provoked the retribution against it. Newspapers were offered a scoop from GHQ on the inner workings of the Convention, which previously had been kept under wraps.
The Irish Times and the Irish Independent declined to print. The Freeman was braver or perhaps more audacious.
Under loaded headlines such as DICTATORSHIP THE AIM and DELEGATES CALMLY DISCUSS SUPPRESSION OF GOVERNMENT, PRESS AND ELCTIONS, the article exposed how a resolution had included the establishment of a military dictatorship. The proposal, as put forward by two of the delegates, Tom Barry and Frank Barrett, had been debated, before being put aside until the subsequent convention for the following month. While not the immediate goal of the anti-Treaty IRA, autocracy was clearly not a topic that was off-limits.
The night after the Freeman’s exposé came the attack and arson of its offices. The raiders had not bothered to hide their faces when doing the deed, and O’Connor similarly did not deny his culpability in his response to the press – what was left of it, anyway. If Oliver Wendell Holmes had ruled that liberty of speech does not cover shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre, then he and O’Connor were of the same sentiment.
“A free speech is admirable,” O’Connor wrote, “but ‘freedom of the press,’ according to the views of the Freeman…is the right to undermine the army and seduce it from its allegiance to the Republic.”
The Freeman had been knocked down…and got up again swinging. Barely missing a step in its daily edition, it printed anew on the 1st April, diminished in pages and with cruder, improvised text, but unafraid to call out its tormentor:
The sledge is not all-powerful.
On the night it demolished our machines we managed to produce one sheet.
Today we offer our readers seven.
The FREEMAN’S JOURNAL declines to bow to tyranny whether its aposties be British or Irish.
Ireland will stand by the FREEMAN.
The country has taken the measure of the sledges.
Call us mutineers if you like says Mr Rory O’Connor.
But why did Mr O’Connor and his fellow-mutineers order the wrecking of the FREEMAN’S JOURNAL?
Because, they allege, we publish statements prejudicial to the discipline of the Army?
What right or title have self-acknowledged mutineers to talk of discipline?
A Tremendous Responsibility
To Ernie O’Malley, such ostentatious finger-pointing was as much a matter of policy as petulance. O’Connor:
…had been made a target by the Staters at which to hurl abuse. It had served their purpose better to refer to us as ‘Rory O’Connor’s men’, then to admit that we were organised on the same lines as themselves, that we had a Headquarters Staff, and he as Director of Engineering filled the same post as he had done on the old Staff during the Tan scrap.
The two men were to work in close alignment together in the following months, though O’Malley found the other – “droll and laconic, with a strong reserve” – hard to know beyond a professional level. Given his introverted nature, O’Connor was an unusual choice as Director of Publicity, as well as Engineering, for the anti-Treaty IRA, but he took to the role, as he had with all his others, whole-heartedly.
Such was O’Connor’s fame, or notoriety, that when a journalist from the Irish Times interviewed him in the Four Courts on the 14th April 1922, he was referred to in the subsequent article as “Chief of the Volunteer Executive.” Which was not quite true; if anyone could claim that title, it was Liam Lynch as Chief of Staff, but Lynch remained in the background, a relatively overlooked figure, even as O’Connor emerged as the mouthpiece of Republican policy – and increasingly its shaper.
O’Connor assured the journalist that there was no danger of a revolution or a coup d’état. Given how the anti-Treaty IRA had seized the Four Courts earlier that morning, one could be forgiven for scepticism but, according to O’Connor, this had been due to a need for more accommodation space and nothing more.
Be that as it may, the Irish Times felt the need to address what must surely have been on the minds of its readers: “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections.”
It is not clear if this was meant in the spirit of reassurance or incredulity. Perhaps the writers did not know themselves. The Executive itself was undecided. Earlier in the month, after the second IRA Convention on the 9th April, the question as to whether to cancel all and any general elections for the immediate future was aired amongst the Executive.
The majority were in favour but, short of a unanimous vote, it was decided to abstain from going quite that far just yet. That the possibility came up at all was too much for three of its members – Florence O’Donoghue, Tom Hales and Seán O’Hegarty – who resigned in protest. These vacancies were swiftly filled, but the trio were now free to take action of their own.
The three men gave their names to a list of seven others on a statement that was presented to the Dáil on the 1st May 1922, declaring that “a closing of the ranks all round is necessary” in order to halt the march towards civil war. Each of the signatories was a high-ranking IRA officer, with five being anti-Treaty – Dan Breen and H. Murphy were the other two – and the other half from the Free State side: Michael Collins, Richard Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, Seán Boylan and Gearóid O’Sullivan.
In keeping with this display of solidary, the document urged for a peaceful resolution to the crisis on the basis of:
The acceptance that the majority of people in Ireland were willing to accept the Treaty.
A general election with an aim towards:
A government with the confidence of the whole country.
In addition, “Army unification on above basis.” Which was a terse line on so critical a matter, perhaps reflecting how none of the group knew how that worthy goal was to come about or in what form. The fact that, on the same evening that this blueprint for peace was delivered to the Dáil, anti-Treaty IRA soldiers seized the Kildare Street Club and the Ballast Office in Westmoreland Street was not a sign that harmony was right around the corner.
Nonetheless, “the value of this manifesto cannot be over-estimated,” wrote the Cork Examiner:
…for it is the first visible sign that many of the officers and men who are on the side of the Army Executive are not prepared to enter civil war.
As much as a closing of the ranks, the outreach actions of the ten represented a breaching. While “at the moment it is difficult to say,” continued the newspaper:
…whether the manifesto has the approval of Mr Rory O’Connor and his Lieutenants, but it is stated on good authority that even assuming he decided to stand aloof, his supporters will represent quite a negligible quality.
Responding the following day, O’Connor answered the question as to whether the initiative had his sanction. It did not, being “clearly a political dodge, intended by anti-Republicans to split the Republican ranks.” No deal could be reached if bought at the expense of honour and principle, and certainly not private ones between individuals. Only agreements built on the recognition of the Irish Republic were in any way acceptable, and so the Executive, elected for the purposes of guiding the Republican Army towards the right conduct:
…calls upon all true soldiers of the Republic to close their ranks, and not be led astray by specious and fallacious arguments, calculated to win soldiers from their allegiance to the Republic and make British subjects of the Irish people.
But O’Connor was preaching to a shrinking choir. When his closest partner, Liam Mellows, repeated to the Dáil his description of the manifesto as a ‘political dodge’, he was reprimanded by both O’Hegarty and Collins, two Corkonians on opposite sides of the Treaty divide, yet both willing to cooperate towards the common goal of peace.
From Kilkenny had come reports of bloodshed between Republicans and Free Staters, to which O’Hegarty pointed as a potential Ghost of Ireland to Come. “Let the country drift into civil war,” he warned in a riposte to his anti-Treaty colleagues, “and you will not get a Republic.”
Who’s in Charge?
O’Connor had ridden the tide of armed opposition to the Treaty but now the waters pulled back, leaving him beached and isolated and more than a little ridiculous. A series of talks between political and military representatives from both sides kindled a hope for peace, including a set date for the general election that the Executive had thought to cancel, and even talk of the Four Courts being handed back to its judicial purpose.
As if desperate to show himself still relevant, O’Connor claimed in an interview, on the 28th May, that the new agreement between Collins and Éamon de Valera for an amiable ‘Pact’ Election had only come about because of the Four Courts seizure. As for the current lull, that was but an intermission until the final push for the Republic, a mission that had only been postponed, not fulfilled.
When asked if that was something best left to the electorate, via their elected representatives in the Dáil, O’Connor replied that the expression of popular will was not to be found through parliamentary channels. And then there was the North-East of Ireland, the six Ulster counties still in British hands, another question on the backburner. Guerrilla attacks had been launched there the previous week, with more to come, O’Connor promised.
This was too much for O’Hegarty, who decided it was time to cut the uppity demagogue down to size. The following day, he sent a communication of his own to the press, in a letter telling that:
It is high time that the pretence of “General Rory O’Connor” to be “head of the army” was burst up. Though Rory O’Connor has been prominently associated with the Four Courts Executive, he never was head of the army acting under that Executive, nor authorised to speak for it.
Therefore, the public should realise that the statements attributed to him in your issue of to-day are merely his own opinions, and are valueless as an index of the general army situation.
On his last point, this was not entirely true. O’Connor was, after all, a member of the IRA Executive and a leading one at that. But that body, established to lead the Republican forces against the Treaty, was finding it hard to lead itself.
Some fumed at the joint actions of O’Hegarty, O’Donoghue and Hales, seeing them as a breach in discipline, but Liam Lynch, despite his responsibility as Chief of Staff, did nothing to censure the trio. Judging by the enthusiasm in which Lynch approached the subsequent talks with the Pro-Treatyites, he may even have approved.
Others on the Executive began to look at Lynch and those close to him, such as Liam Deasy, as potential weak links, too keen to make peace at the expense of the Republic. To Deasy, it was a painfully unfair suspicion, since “we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful,” this being to hold the Republican lines steady in order to secure concessions.
Which did not impress the likes of O’Connor and Liam Mellows. Distrust trickled down the ranks, complained Deasy, so that “it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side,” making the brittle control by Lynch even more so.
“The Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor, a Dublin IRA commander (and no relation to Rory), put it. The problem, in his view, was that the Executive had personalities too strong to accept direction while not forceful enough to overawe the rest into any sort of coherent direction.
It was a judgement seconded by another colleague. “To my mind, Liam Lynch and Rory O’Connor were unsuitable for the decisions now thrust upon them,” Peadar O’Donnell wrote. And yet these were the men who held the power.
Perhaps this divided command was why the Executive came across as schizophrenic during the IRA reunification talks between anti and pro-Treaty representations. At first the diplomacy went well enough for a proposed Army Council and GHQ, consisting of members from both factions.
Lynch must have done the ‘hard sell’, for the new Council would have handed him a majority: five Anti-Treatyites with a pro-Treaty three. The GHQ would begin as more equal at three to three, but since Eoin O’Duffy, the Free State Chief-of-Staff-to-be was about to resign to take up the post of Police Commissioner, Lynch looked set to replace him, with Deasy as Deputy Chief of Staff, granting the anti-Treaty camp preponderance there as well.
“It was after a long and anxious consideration that Liam Lynch accepted this basis of settlement,” wrote O’Donoghue. And no wonder, for the Anti-Treatyites were practically being awarded the keys to the kingdom.
Yet, for some, even this was too much of a compromise, which was built on the assumption of the Treaty, after all, and an Ireland remaining within the British sphere. Despite a promised place on the Army Council, O’Connor sent a letter to Richard Mulcahy, co-signed by Ernie O’Malley, on the 15th June. The negotiations were off, they told the Minister for Defence. No reason was provided. While the pair promised no attacks on Free State personnel, the same could not be said for the ancestral foe.
“We take whatever action may be necessary to maintain the Republic against British aggression,” was how they phrased it. O’Connor and O’Malley claimed to be writing on behalf of the ‘Forces at the Four Courts’; not, it may be noted, the Executive.
The question of Army reunification was still a live one three days later, on the 18th July 1922, at the third IRA Convention of the year, once again held in the Mansion House. The ‘Pact Election’ had taken place two days before, resulting in a crushing loss of seats by anti-Treaty candidates.
“The events of the previous week had created an atmosphere in which counsels of moderation had no hope of even a patient hearing,” wrote O’Donoghue with gloomy hindsight. “The Army reunification proposals could not have been brought forward under any conditions better calculated to ensure their summary rejection.”
Considering the tensions within the Executive between ‘moderates’ like Lynch and Deasy, and ‘hardliners’ such as O’Connor and Mellows, it is questionable as to whether any sort of conditions would have made a difference. To shut down the reunification scheme before it could be aired, Tom Barry surprised the assembled delegates with a proposition of his own: that British soldiers in their remaining posts in Dublin and the six Ulster Counties be attacked after a notice of seventy-two hours to withdraw. Lynch was caught on the back foot, while O’Connor had clearly been expectant.
“Rory put a short but very firm defence of the war proposals,” remembered one witness, Seán MacBride, though the rest of the event was lost to him in a haze of speeches. When the vote was finally taken, Barry’s motion fell short, allowing for the next item on the agenda: Lynch’s reunification plan. But it was not to be. O’Connor had previously warned of leaving if that came up; in this, he was true to his word and led a dramatic exit from the hall, accompanied by Mellows and the rest of their sympathisers.
Curiously, in a footnote to the whole episode, Mulcahy told the Dáil, three months later in September 1922, that it had been the Free State who had turned down the final reunification offer because:
The man who would be placed in complete executive control of the Army would be the man who a short time ago recommended the idea of a dictatorship, and was out for the suppression of the Press and the stoppage of elections, and who would not allow the Treaty to be worked.
In spite of his very sterling character they could not allow as chief military head of the Army a man who had publicly taken up that attitude.
By that description, Mulcahy could only have meant O’Connor. Nowhere else is it suggested that O’Connor would have been granted that amount of authority and, in any case, it was the Anti-Treatyites who had pulled out. But these details would not have been widely known until later, making it easy for Mulcahy to paint the picture he wanted for the Dáil.
A clue as to why is his admission that the reunification scheme had not been an ideal one, certainly not something he would suggest to any other fledgling government, but which had seemed like the best of a bad choice at the time. The Civil War had broken out by then, pitting the Free State against men like Lynch and Deasy who were supposed to have been its partners in a new Ireland. Making the notoriously truculent O’Connor the red line the Free State would not cross allowed Mulcahy to walk away with honour from what in hindsight had been a very ill-conceived idea.
Tweaking the Lion’s Tail
Having ruptured the Executive, humiliated his Chief of Staff and left the reunification proposals ruined beyond repair, O’Connor and his coterie returned to the Four Courts. Lynch and Deasy followed them the next morning, only to find themselves barred, along with anyone else who had voted against the war proposals. If O’Connor had been side-lined when the chances for peace looked good, now the wheel had turned and it was the ‘moderates’ who were locked out in the cold – literally.
As bad as feelings had been on the Executive, neither Lynch or Deasy had thought it would go that far. With nothing to be done, the pair trudged back and informed the remaining officers in the city about this split within the split. Lynch was appointed Chief of Staff – almost as a consolation prize – over what was left of the anti-Treaty IRA outside the Four Courts, where O’Connor, Mellows and other ‘hardliners’ stayed, fortified and aloof in the headquarters they now had to themselves.
While Deasy was to mourn the missed opportunities, the ‘wrecking’ strategy chosen by O’Connor and his allies was not an unrealistic one. Attacking those British soldiers on Irish soil would indeed restart the war, and thus nullify the Treaty more effectively than any Dáil speech or political resolution. It was a danger that General Nevil Macready, commander of the British forces still in Dublin, was all too conscious of when, upon arriving in Downing Street on the 23rd June 1922, in response to a telegrammed summons, he was asked by the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, about whether the Four Courts could be captured immediately.
To Macready, this request smacked of Winston Churchill’s “feverish impetuosity” as Secretary of State, as well as being a sign of the “suppressed agitation” within the Cabinet. It was not that the option could not be done; indeed, plans to that effect had been under discussion for some time. Macready had even paid a visit to the site two months before, on the 15th April 1922, a day after its seizure, rubbing shoulders with the “loafers and unwashed youth” who had come to gawk at this latest spectacle.
Looking over into the courtyard, Macready had not been impressed at the sight of the “very dirty looking men” busy setting up barbed-wire entanglements, but he did recognise how they, encamped now in the heart of the city, could make life very difficult for the British presence. When Macready wrote to Michael Collins on what he proposed to do about the situation, particularly if the Anti-Treatyites were to use their new positions to take potshots at his troops, the General was met with a visit by Alfred Cope, assistant Under-Secretary for Ireland:
Cope came to tell me that Collins could not reply to my letter in writing, but had deputed him to explain the line of action which the Provisional Government wished pursued. The main point was the importance of avoiding a general conflict which would play into Rory O’Connor’s hands by combining his and Collins’s men against the common enemy, i.e. the British soldiers.
It was a point which Macready kept in mind when, two months later, he was tasked by his civilian superiors with the proposed clearing out of the Four Courts. Sir Henry Wilson had been shot dead outside his London home the day before by two IRA men and, though no evidence linked the assassins to anyone else, let alone the Four Courts faction in particular, there was now a sense in Downing Street that Something Must Be Done.
An Irish Comic Opera
Though Macready mourned Wilson as a friend and fellow soldier, he kept his cool, repeating to Lloyd George the same arguments Cope had made:
It was an open secret that at this time Collins’s hold upon his men was precarious, and that the policy of de Valera and his henchman Rory O’Connor was if possible to irritate the British troops into activity, and then call upon those members of the IRA who stood by Collins to unite against the common enemy, a call which would have been answered by a majority who would have claimed that the British had broken the truce.
O’Connor would have bristled at the suggestion that he was anyone’s ‘henchman’, let alone de Valera’s. If Collins’ hold was tenuous, then de Valera’s influence on the IRA Executive was non-existent. But, even if Macready exaggerated O’Connor’s importance – he made no mention in his memoirs of Lynch, Deasy or Mellows – his deduction about the anti-Treaty strategy was essentially correct. O’Connor may have specialised in sabotaging the plans of others, but that did not mean he had none of his own.
Having provided his professional opinion, Macready was sent back to his command in Dublin to await further orders, which followed soon after, instructing him to proceed with the assault on the Four Courts. To Macready, this would only have led straight into the debacle he was trying to avoid:
Whilst every soldier in Dublin would have been overjoyed at the opportunity of dealing with Rory O’Connor and his scallywags, the few senior officers to whom I unfolded the scheme were unanimous in their agreement that it could have but one result, the opening of hostilities throughout Ireland.
O’Connor, it seemed, was about to get his way after all. Macready promptly dispatched his most senior General Staff Officer over to London with a letter, in which Macready spelled out exactly why the order to attack was such a bad idea. He breathed a sigh of relief when official word came again the following day, on the 25th June, this time cancelling the operation.
Disaster had been averted – for some, at least. Events in Ireland were moving at a rapid pace, and within forty-eight hours of one doorway to war closing, another opened when J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, a general in the Free State forces, was captured by men from the Four Courts garrison.
“The hand of Michael Collins was now forced, and he was obliged, much against his will, to assert his authority,” as Macready put it. “It was, therefore, decided against that the Four Courts should be attacked by men of the IRA who remained staunch to him on the following day, 28th June.”
To that end, Macready received directions, via Cope, to donate a pair of 18-pounder guns and their accompanying ammunition to the Free State. O’Connor and his ‘scallywags’ were about to receive the war they wanted, just not quite with the anticipated opponent, as “the situation rapidly reverted to the Irish comic opera style.”
A Fanatic’s Spirituality
O’Connor, meanwhile, was conducting another of his talks with the Fourth Estate, one more pleasant than most, considering how it was with Clare Sheridan, a journalist on assignment from the New York World. Globe-trotting, well-connected (Winston Churchill was a cousin) and easy on the eye, Sheridan had previously dropped in at the anti-Treaty publicity department on Suffolk Street, much to the interest of the staff, who found reasons to come by the An Pobhlacht premises while she was interviewing its editor, Patrick Little. He and O’Connor were old friends and so, when Little rang up the Four Courts, O’Connor invited him and his press caller to come by.
O’Connor was a busy man and so could not see Sheridan immediately, leaving her to wait in the courtyard on a chair thoughtfully provided by the sentries on duty, who were probably as bewitched at the sight of her as the Suffolk Street staff. The youthful years of many in the garrison struck Sheridan – some appearing to be no more than fifteen – as did the carefree way in which they joked and jostled with each other, rifles in hand and cartridge-belts slung over serge suits, a motley of the military and the casual.
In contrast was O’Connor, when Sheridan was finally allowed in, up a wide stone staircase and past offices to where he had his. If the others had been boyishly jolly, then their leader was:
Thin and ascetic, his white face sunken, revealing the bone formation. His eyes are deep set. He was clean shaven and dressed plainly, in dark clothes. His speech was that of a scholarly man and he seemed imbued with the spirituality of a fanatic.
Despite his slightly forbidding appearance, the presence of a revolver on the desk before him and the way he idly toyed with an assortment of bullets, O’Connor proved an amiable conversationalist. Irishmen would walk into English prisons with their heads proudly up, he explained to Sheridan, speaking slowly and deliberately in his cavern-deep voice, but never as subjects in a British colony. Only an Irish Republic could guarantee a friendly future between the two countries, something which the Treaty could never provide, robbing as it did everything Ireland had been striving for.
As for Michael Collins, who had signed his name to the Treaty and forced it on the rest of them, he was no more than an opportunist and a bully, but O’Connor added that he did not mean ‘bully’ as an insult. After all, bullying was one way to get things done. It was a revealing bit of projection, considering how the policy of the IRA Executive – or, at least, his faction within it – was to force a confrontation with the Free State and the British Government.
In regards to the endgame, O’Connor was sanguine about the possibilities. The telephone rang, and he briefly conversed with someone who Sheridan guessed was another journalist, but that Little, sitting in on the dialogue, thought to be Mulcahy, giving the final ultimatum for the Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Four Courts. O’Connor refused, impressing Sheridan with his steely will, even as the obstinacy horrified her.
“Surely you will not stay here? They will blow the walls and roof down on your head,” she told O’Connor as she prepared to take her leave. “You haven’t an earthly chance.”
“Then I’ll go down in the ruins or in the flames,” he replied, shrugging as if it were all the same to him.
Within forty-eight hours, it was over.
A white flag hoisted from the Four Courts at 3:30 am, on the 30th June, signalled the bowing of the inevitable by those inside. With hands held up, the defeated garrison came out of the battered complex, its walls chipped and holed by the 18-pounder guns, and quietly allowed themselves to be separated into groups and loaded on to lorries bound either for Mountjoy Prison or a hospital, so reported the Irish Times:
Among the wounded was Mr Rory O’Connor, who was assisted from the burning building to an ambulance. He is believed to have been wounded in the stomach.
Perhaps this handicap was why he demurred on O’Malley’s suggestion that they rush their guards, seize the rifles and continue the fight then and there. Doing so would be dishonourable, O’Connor said, but O’Malley wondered if he had simply given up:
The fight to him had been a symbol of resistance. He had built a dream in his mind and the dream was there; failure did not count and he evidently did not sense defeat. With me the fight was a symbol only if it had dignity and significance.
O’Malley was able to slip away, while O’Connor stayed to face the consequences. He was mindful enough to warn the captain of the fire brigade about the seven tonnes of explosives still inside the Four Courts. It was at this point that the material in question detonated, wounding three firemen and sending a huge column of smoke and dust into the air, writhing and mushrooming as it rose, while stone fragments, mixed with burning paper, rained down into the surrounding neighbourhoods.
However shocking this detonation, it appeared to be the end of the crisis, at least so some believed – or hoped. “With the fall of their principal stronghold,” wrote the Irish Times:
The Dublin Irregulars will, presumably, confine themselves to tactics of guerrilla warfare. If the Irregulars and those who sympathise with them realise the full extent of their defeat, the tide of Ireland’s misfortune may have turned.
If O’Connor did indeed realise this extent, then he did not care. As the Irish Times predicted, the remaining anti-Treaty IRA units in Dublin and elsewhere continued the fight, this time eschewing large-scale confrontations for the tried-and-true, hit-and-run tactics from before. O’Connor’s only complaint was that he could not be part of it.
“It is hell’s own torment to be locked up here, while you are all at work,” he wrote on the 12th September 1922, in a letter to Ernie O’Malley that had been smuggled out of his new accommodation in Mountjoy Prison. “Personally, I have never been in jail so long, and I’m going to get out some way.”
Considering his past record as a Fenian Pimpernel, springing himself and others out of captivity, this was no empty boast. Already he was thinking ahead, with a list of suggestions for O’Malley, such as the burning down of Free State government departments or the seizure of public mail. Should police be assigned to guard postmen on their rounds, then even better, for they could be robbed for their guns. Munitions was an issue at the forefront of his mind, as befitting the former IRA Director of Engineering.
“I suppose you have Chemists working anyway I will send formula for incendiary bombs,” he wrote, while recommending the services of a Trinity student who had previously volunteered his technical skills to the Four Courts. Speaking of which, there was the chance of equipment still being inside their former stronghold, unscathed from the fire and overlooked by the Free State.
For retrieval, O’Connor suggested a manhole in Church Street, opposite Hammond Lane. “Go in, walk 9 ft in sewer away from river. There is a hole in the sewer, leading into our tunnel.”
Clearly, O’Connor was ill-suited for inactivity and could only endure the forced role of bystander. “These are a few ideas which may or may not be of use. I think we should try to make Govt. impossible by every means,” which had, after all, worked well enough in the last war. He did not anticipate much in the way of difficulty of winning this one.
For the enemy president, O’Connor had only contempt: “[W.T.] Cosgrave can be easily scared to clear out.” Bold words for a man in captivity about another who was not, but Cosgrave, according to O’Connor, had previously taken his leave of Ireland for no less than seven weeks when the going got tough against the British, much to O’Connor’s disgust.
If there was anything to fear, it was that his colleagues would take the easy route out before victory – and the Republic – was achieved: “For God’s sake, beware of the compromising mind of the diplomat, which may possibly try to override you all.”
O’Connor had never been one for half-measures and was not about to change now, regardless of the ups and downs of fickle fortune. Any hesitancy that O’Malley had sensed was long dissipated.
“God guard you all. Regards to all comrades,” he signed off with.
The Men Behind the Walls
O’Connor endeavoured to keep himself busy in Mountjoy with more than just letter-writing. If he was cocksure in his correspondence, considering the circumstances, then he had his reasons, for plans were underway for the inmates to dig their way out. The first was attempted in July by Anti-Treatyites who had escaped the fall of their positions in Dublin earlier in the month, showing that, regardless of the military debacle, morale remained strong.
“It was I gathered Rory O’Connor’s idea,” recalled one of their number, Mary Flannery Woods. O’Connor had passed on word about a household who might be willing to lend their residence for use in beginning the tunnel. When that was refused, an address in Glengarriff Parade was procured instead. This put Woods and the rest of the group sufficiently near the prison, and they began boring through the kitchen-floor when a group of Free State soldiers surrounded the house and took them all into custody.
That attempt had been scotched, but not the idea, and so the men inside Mountjoy decided to take it up themselves. “Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey, Tom Barry and I, all members of the IRA executive, came together a good deal,” wrote Peadar O’Donnell in his memoirs. Necessity inspired innovation, such as when someone made keys to the padlocked trapdoors to the above space between ceiling and roof; with that barrier cracked, and after the surreptitious holing of a few walls, the prisoners were able to enjoy a measure of freedom within their confinement.
“Every shut door becomes a challenge in prison,” O’Donnell noted dryly. But that was not enough, and so “escape fever was still fitful…we were depending on a tunnel reaching us from the outside. When that was caught we decided to attempt one ourselves.”
It was O’Connor who suggested the basement of C Wing, since that area was rarely in use and so would risk few interruptions. Soon the men involved had broken through the floor of a cell, into the basement, where one of the granite slabs covering the ground was prised up and the digging commenced. Displaced dirt was carried away in a wooden box which, O’Donnell learnt, made less noise than an enamel basin.
O’Connor’s engineering background and past experience in jail-breaks made him the natural leader of the enterprise, but O’Donnell could not find it in himself to warm to him. Mellows was a different matter, and the two passed much of the time in conversation together; a talented musician, Mellows also entertained the others with his violin and singing voice. Being made of narrower stuff, O’Connor:
…was not kittenish like Mellows and so did not come into such varied relations with jail life…Rory’s mind had neither the sweep nor the resistance of Mellows’, but it was more persistently on edge.
This restlessness was displayed in his confrontational attitude towards wardens. There might have been a Darwinian calculation for this, since “he believed such clashes kept jail life healthy,” according to O’Donnell. “You could see clearly in the prison the qualities that had drawn him out into the front after the Treaty and the contempt for his opponents that was his weakness.”
The secret work beneath C Wing made such progress that a second tunnel over at A Wing was started, reaching within a few feet of the prison wall before its discovery by the authorities. This prompted a fresh burst of searches, during which the subterranean endeavours in C Wing were also exposed.
Thwarted and depressed, the prisoners turned to other possibilities. The smuggling in of guns and explosives for an assault on the main gate was considered, before an appeal was made to the IRA command still at liberty for another tunnelling attempt. Word came back that this was already underway, again being dug from a house near Mountjoy. By the 7th December 1922, this fresh tunnel had reached the exercise yard, so O’Connor informed O’Donnell and Mellows, with only a little further to go. His promise of escape to O’Malley looked set to be kept.
‘The Quicklime on their Boots’
O’Connor spent the rest of the evening in the company of Séan MacBride, with whom he shared a cell. The pair talked while O’Connor carved chessmen from a stray piece of wood, the topic being the story that two pro-Treaty TDs, Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille, had been shot dead in Dublin earlier that day. Neither could confirm if that was true or not; in any case, they got down to a round of chess once O’Connor was done making the pieces, a game he won as he always did.
Retiring early to bed – ‘bed’ being a mattress and three blankets on the floor – they continued to gossip, the topic now being the tunnel in the works. It was coming not a moment too soon, for rumour among the prisoners had it that the Free State planned to deport some of their number to an island. Which island, O’Connor and MacBride wondered laughingly.
MacBride was awoken later that night by the door to the cell quietly opening, allowing someone to slip in and out. MacBride thought little of it and was drifting off when the uninvited guest returned to hold a match over O’Connor’s sleeping face. From where he lay, MacBride recognised Burke, a turnkey with a fearsome reputation. Burke left, but there was little chance of shut-eye for MacBride as he lay on his mattress, wondering what that had been about.
O’Connor, meanwhile, was continuing to enjoy his slumber, even when the sound of footsteps, accompanied by whispers, emanated from the other side of the door. Instead of Burke, it was the Deputy Governor of Mountjoy, Paudeen O’Keefe, who entered this time. O’Keefe fumbled at his gas-torch, cursing softly as it failed to light, so he instead struck a match.
“Mr O’Connor, please get up and dress,” O’Keefe said. He told the same to MacBride, the politeness as much a cause for surprise as anything, before leaving. Candles were brought in, allowing O’Connor and MacBride to dress by their light – unnecessarily so in the latter’s case, for when O’Keefe returned, he told MacBride that he could return to bed as he would not be needed.
As if MacBride could sleep after that. With the usual restrictions seemingly on hold, he ventured out on the landing to see that three other notable residents of C Wing had been stirred from their holdings. A solemn-looking Mellows was tearing up papers, while Joe McKelvey wrapped his books in a blanket to put over his shoulder, the effect of which made him resemble Santa Clause to MacBride’s mind.
No one had any idea what was happening. If O’Connor had any concerns, he kept them to himself as he merrily offered MacBride a sovereign and a five shilling piece: the gold and silver used at the wedding of Kevin O’Higgins, a little over a year ago. O’Higgins was now Minister of Home Affairs for the Free State and thus an enemy but, before, O’Connor had stood as his best man on that day.
“Take these,” O’Connor said, “they have always brought me bad luck.”
MacBride refused, saying: “You may need them, even if it is another prison and not negotiations.”
“Alright,” O’Connor conceded, “but take these chessmen.”
Then he gave MacBride a firm handshake. MacBride also shook hands with Mellows and McKelvey, but missed the fourth man, Dick Barrett, who was already going down the steps as if he had no time to waste.
O’Connor, Mellows and McKelvey followed, leaving C Wing in an uncomfortable silence. All four of the departed were senior IRA members, and so the idea of them being called to negotiate, perhaps in ending the war, was not an impossibility, but MacBride could not help but worry. The Fee State had already carried out executions of captured Anti-Treatyites, though MacBride was incredulous at the idea of O’Connor and the other three being included.
That morning, as the inmates trooped along for a late Mass, there came the sounds of gunfire from the front of Mountjoy: a muffled volley, then another, followed by single shots. MacBride overheard someone say “they were shot” but he was too stunned for that to sink in until he saw the Free State soldiers, accompanied by workmen in overalls, pass by.
No words were said, but the way the soldiers avoided looking at the inmates, along with the mud on their boots and trousers, told MacBride enough: they had been out in the courtyard, and that could only mean one thing. A piece of poetry by Oscar Wilde flew into his mind:
A chaplain in the Free State army, Father John Pigott, attended to the four prisoners’ spiritual needs before their deaths by firing-squad, done in retaliation for the slayings of Hales and Ó Máille. The first of the condemned Father Pigott saw upon his arrival at Mountjoy was O’Connor, finding him to be:
…pale; but perfectly calm and composed and when I suggested that we waste no time in any discussions, but get down to the actual preparation, he said: “that is exactly what I want, Father.”
No one could ever have accused O’Connor of being anything less than serious, whether for war, the Republic or his own death.
 O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 24
Joseph Lawless was a busy man in his workshop at 198 Parnell Street, Dublin, where he churned out bombs for use by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The process was a simple one: a steel pipe sawn off to four inches and then sealed at either end, save for a hole drilled in one in which to insert the fuse. But this was too crude a method for Lawless’ exacting standards and so he argued to colleagues that his allocated funds would be better spent renovating the old foundry in the basement. With that, a more sophisticated type of explosive could be produced.
His lobbying was successful enough for a visit to the workshop from Dick McKee and Peadar Clancy, the O/C and the Quartermaster of the Dublin IRA Brigade respectively. The two officers listened as Lawless expounded on his proposal. While interested, McKee remained noncommittal, telling Lawless that he would send over Rory O’Connor, the Director of Engineering in the IRA GHQ, for a second opinion on the idea’s feasibility.
The man in question called in at the workshop a day or so later. Lawless’ first impression was not a promising one:
He struck me as peculiarly solemn and unsmiling, one might say lugubrious, and did not appear to listen to what I said when I began to explain the details of what I considered my plan for a bomb factory.
Where was the furnace? O’Connor asked Lawless while the latter was in mid-sentence. He wanted to examine it for himself.
Lawless took his graceless guest down to the basement, cautioning him that the furnace, in an unlit corner at the back, was missing the grating for its draught-pit in front. Ignoring this advice, O’Connor pressed on in the dark and, before Lawless could stop him, stumbled into the open hole, much to Lawless’ quiet amusement.
Still, no harm done save to O’Connor’s dignity and, after a few days, Lawless received word that his proposal had been approved by his Brigade superiors. O’Connor had evidently submitted a favourable report on his findings, however gauche he might have been in person.
O’Connor could have that effect on his fellow revolutionaries. Todd Andrews thought him “too forbidding a person to approach. He was saturnine in appearance, very dark-skinned, always in deep thought, brooding and worried. He did not look a healthy man.” But to Piaras Béaslaí, while he conceded that O’Connor’s “manner was not attractive to strangers…those who were intimate with him found him to be a very pleasant and sociable companion.”
Another one close enough to uncover O’Connor’s inner charm was David Neligan. “He was good company, a great talker, very cheerful,” Neligan remembered. Though he shared O’Connor’s political convictions, his role in the Irish struggle was a very different one: as a senior officer in the Dublin Metropolitan Police (DMP), Neligan had access to confidential information in Dublin Castle, which he leaked to his IRA contacts. He was walking through St Stephen’s Green with a DMP co-worker when the latter indicated a short, middle-aged man, with a face thin to the point of haggard, sitting nearby on a park bench.
“See him, Dave?” said the policeman. “He is a prominent Sinn Feiner. If he is there tomorrow, we’ll have him pulled.”
Having recognised O’Connor, Neligan made sure to pass on a warning, much to O’Connor’s gratitude. Though O’Connor had dodged arrest, Neligan was to see him in peril again, this time in the yard of Dublin Castle, being interrogated by a British intelligence officer. Neligan tried arguing that the suspect was merely a harmless eccentric but to no avail.
“I’m told,” said the officer, “that he is a prominent Shinner.”
Which was true enough, and O’Connor was forwarded to Arbour Hill to join the other POWs there, including Lawless, who had likewise been collared. As if that was not bad enough. Lawless learnt the day after his apprehension, in December 1920, about the discovery of his Parnell Street workshop and the bomb-factory he had worked so hard to set up.
It was not the end of the war, of course, nor of Lawless’ part in it, and he handled the smuggling of letters in and out of Arbour Hill, thanks to bribed wardens. Through this, O’Connor was able to keep in contact with the rest of the revolutionary leadership, though there was something about O’Connor that Lawless found unsettling.
According to Lawless, it was an opinion shared by a number of the other inmates:
Rory was a solemn, unsmiling egotistical sort of person whom we looked upon as a little mad and did not take him too seriously.
At least the authority of Con O’Donovan helped keep things steady. As the elected commandant of the prisoners, O’Donovan liaised with the Arbour Hill governor and ensured the maintenance of discipline among the inmates. Near the end of January 1921, O’Donovan was transferred to Ballykinlar Camp, an internment centre set up to manage the overflow of captives taken by the Crown forces as the war intensified.
O’Donovan’s absence created a vacancy for the role of prison commandant, which Lawless was voted in to fill. Not all were pleased by this choice, however, as Lawless recalled:
The other candidate for the appointment was Rory O’Connor, who mooted around the claim that as a member of the IRA General Staff he was the senior officer in the prison. However, as I have already mentioned, the general body of prisoners did not quite trust Rory’s mental balance.
To smooth things over, Lawless pointed out to O’Connor that it was best for him not to gain too much prominence and instead remain anonymous among the mass of detainees. Despite his capture, O’Connor’s identity and true importance was unknown to his captors, who registered him under the assumed name he had provided.
Prison Pump Politics
O’Connor made no more complaints over who was what, though Lawless did not think he was entirely conciliated. In early March 1921, the inmates were paraded in the main hall, where the names of those due to be moved to the Curragh, Co. Kildare, were read out, around one hundred and fifty, which amounted to half their number.
Lawless and O’Connor were among those set to leave. While they waited, listening to the hum of the vehicles outside that were to be their transport, O’Connor sidled up to Lawless and asked in a whisper if he had any plans to escape along the way. To O’Connor’s displeasure, Lawless told him no, not for the moment, since they were sure to be heavily guarded, unless an opportunity happened to appear.
This wait-and-see attitude was not what O’Connor had been wanting to hear:
He then took up the heavy attitude with me and, speaking as a member of the General Staff, warned me that it was my duty as a prisoners’ commandant to organise an escape. Poor Rory was evidently still suffering from the snub to his dignity of my election as commandant against his candidature, and I regretted the necessity for a further snub when I replied that the matter rested safely in my hands.
Lawless at least refrained from the ‘snub’ of saying that he was less concerned about the journey ahead – he did not think much was likely to happen on the road – and more about O’Connor, who Lawless was sure would make another attempt at the position of commandant once they were in the Curragh. Not that Lawless desired leadership and its responsibilities but he wanted O’Connor in control even less.
Once he separated himself from O’Connor, he went to Peadar McMahon, a friend of his, and persuaded him to put himself forward for the role once they reached the Curragh. McMahon reluctantly agreed to do so but only on condition that Lawless would help shoulder the burden.
“All this may sound a bit like parish pump politics,” Lawless admitted when composing his account for posterity. Eager to avoid factions, he hoped that McMahon would be a unanimous choice…anyone would do, in fact, as long as it was not O’Connor.
In that, Lawless had his way. McMahon was elected to be in charge for the duration of their stay in the Curragh, with Lawless his second-in-command as agreed. O’Connor had been outmanoeuvred, and Lawless prepared to make do as best he could to life behind the barbed wire-fences and sentry-points of the Rath Camp. Their new confinement was a circular mound, with a diameter of a hundred feet, which lay on a ridge just west of the Curragh. Rebels of a past generation had surrendered there in 1798, only for Crown forces to break the terms and massacre them.
Whether or not their captors knew of the site’s historical significance, it was a bleakly fitting place to store the latest crop of subversives. A city boy, Lawless was discomforted by the wide plains that stretched to the distant horizon whenever he looked outside his confinement, as well as awed at the British military strength on display elsewhere in the Curragh.
When peace presented itself in the form of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in December 1921, Lawless seized the chance. His acceptance of the controversial terms put him at odds with certain individuals, though this, if anything, only confirmed to him the correctness of his decision.
“Those of us who had any previous knowledge of men like Rory O’Connor and de Valera were not impressed by their pose of pure-souled patriotism,” Lawless wrote. “I had had a slight experience of Rory O’Connor in Arbour Hill and the Rath Camp and put him down as a crank.”
Crank or not, and whatever else could be said about him, O’Connor was most certainly not one to sit back and do nothing. Deprived of one goal, he soon found another.
Among the first batch of prisoners to arrive at the Rath Camp was David E. Ryan of the Dublin Brigade. “The morning was bitterly cold and a drive of 30 miles was far from pleasant,” as he described the journey in a convoy of ten lorries, with two armoured cars at either end and a pair of military aeroplanes circling overhead. Clearly, the British authorities were taking no chances.
The passengers in Ryan’s transport passed the time by singing patriotic Irish songs, along with a parody of Rule Britannia, much to the amusement of the soldiers guarding them, if only because it infuriated their officer in charge. But ribaldry could only go so far in maintaining morale, and it was a tired and famished group who reached the Curragh, with little in the way of comfort to look forward to:
For the first week, on account of our changed addresses, we received none of the usual parcels from our friends outside, and to say that we were often hungry during that week would be putting it mildly.
Little wonder, then, that Ryan’s thoughts turned to the means of getting out and soon.
For assistance, he turned to O’Connor, who he recognised, despite the fake name the other man went by. Side-lined O’Connor may have been over the prison hierarchy, but his record and standing still inspired respect, at least in Ryan: “He had often planned escapes for others. Now he was to have the pleasure of planning his own.”
The esteem went both ways when Ryan said he would reveal his scheme only on condition of being one of its beneficiaries. “That’s the spirit,” O’Connor replied. “You can do more outside than here. There are too many locked up.”
And so Ryan explained how he had befriended Jerry Gaffney, a fellow IRA member who, while working as a carpenter on the premises – his true loyalty unbeknownst to his employers – had already helped to smuggle out some letters for Ryan. Though O’Connor was at first uncertain as to how far this stranger could be trusted, Ryan vouched for him, and so it was arranged for the three of them to meet the next day in one of the disused huts in the camp.
After reviewing their options, it was assessed that, in the knowledge that the wardens were tightening security, three men at most could make the attempt. Two would obviously be O’Connor and Ryan, as per their deal, but when the latter approached a prospective candidate for the third, the man – who Ryan refrained from naming in his account – declined on account of ill health. With time being of the essence, Ryan and O’Connor decided to proceed anyway with just the pair of them.
The plan was for Gaffney to procure workmen’s tools and clothing, to be hidden in the same hut until O’Connor and Ryan could walk out, so disguised, amongst the actual workmen at the end of a shift at 5:30 pm. That was until, with two hours to go, O’Connor abruptly cancelled:
The tone of his remark did not invite questions and he went away hurriedly, but knowing Rory well I knew that he had some good reason for calling it off.
The reason, as O’Connor later explained to Ryan, was that if they absconded in the afternoon, the 6:30 roll-call would expose the two missing names. While such discovery was inevitable, O’Connor wanted to put as much distance between them and their jailers beforehand. And so it was agreed to go ahead the next day, at 12:30, which would give their absence almost the whole day of going unnoticed – that is, if all went as it should.
Ryan began having his doubts when he and O’Connor approached the exit. They had donned the dungarees and equipment, and pulled their caps low over faces smeared with dust as a finishing touch, but still Ryan fretted. The tension grew almost unbearable for him:
As we approached the gate I could feel my heart beating quickly, my breathing became jerky and my senses began to weaken.
He kept himself together in time to present his pass to the soldier on duty who, to his silent horror, knew him already as an inmate. Nonetheless, after the longest of pauses, the guard waved him through, whether because the dirt and overalls were a sufficient disguise or, if he recognised Ryan, due to natural human sympathy.
Once out of earshot, O’Connor exulted: “Thank God, they have been caught napping again.”
The fugitives cut through the fields towards Kildare Railway Station, where they bought two tickets, paying a little extra for returns with the money Gaffney had provided. When the authorities asked around for any suspicious duos who might have passed, who would think of the pair who were apparently planning to come back?
After stopping at Lucan, they were walking towards the trams when a lorry-load of Auxiliaries drove down the street towards them. Had their absence been rumbled? O’Connor feared so.
“I’m afraid it’s all up but walk on,” he told Ryan. The Auxiliaries stopped them but only to ask for directions to Newbridge, which O’Connor politely provided.
That night, with Rory I had the pleasure of meeting and being congratulated by Michael Collins, Gearóid O’Sullivan and other members of the GHQ staff, all of whom were delighted to get a first-hand account of the first escape of prisoners from an internment camp in Ireland.
The next day, in Dublin, O’Connor ran into Michael Knightly, a journalist who he had supplied with inside information about the past escapes he organised. It was a pleasant surprise for Knightly:
I had known he was a prisoner at the Curragh and I asked: “When did you get out?” Speaking in his usual slow manner, he said: “Ah, I escaped yesterday.”
David Neligan was another friend who spotted him about town, wearing a beard and clerical garb on the quays. When O’Connor appeared at an IRA gathering on the 14th March 1921, it was to great acclaim, the story of his exploit already in circulation. The celebratory mood was tinged, however, with the knowledge that six of their comrades had been executed that morning in Mounjoy. The solemnity extended to the rest of the city, where the trams stopped for the day, workers took time off and those walking the streets did so in silence.
And so the war dragged on. Exactly how it would end was undetermined: not until complete victory was achieved? Or would some sort of compromise be necessary? “If we clatther them hard enough we might get Dominion Home Rule,” said Dick McKee when asked that question, an indication that he leaned towards the latter resolution.
These opposing viewpoints were in the air, if not quite in the open, during a couple of sessions of the IRA Executive in Parnell Square. On these two occasions, Cathal Brugha, as Minister for Defence and with characteristic pugnaciousness, accused Michael Collins of communicating with Dublin Castle without authorisation. Collins denied any such impropriety, while insisting on his prerogative to accept any information that came his way, whatever its origin.
On a seemingly unrelated note, at another meeting, Collins announced his resignation as Adjutant-General, requesting instead the role of Director of Intelligence. Brugha offered no protest; if anything, he seemed pleased at this development. Perhaps he thought this would clip the wings of the uppity Corkman, for the new post was not, on the face of it, particularly important.
When they were done, O’Connor turned to the man sitting next to him and asked Richard Walsh, the representative of the Connaught IRA, for a quiet word. The two departed from Parnell Square towards Parliament Street, while Walsh mulled over what had just happened. After they reached the Royal Exchange Hotel and found themselves a drink and a quiet corner, O’Connor unburdened himself of his concerns:
Rory was very worried about what Collins’s move meant…When summing up the events of the meeting, Rory O’Connor and myself came to the conclusion that while intelligence, its organisation and efficient establishment, was very necessary, it was also very dangerous as it had a boomerang quality that could hit back in an ugly way.
If intelligence-mining thus needed to be treated with care, was Collins the one to do so? Going by Brugha’s previous remarks about links between him and Dublin Castle, both O’Connor and Walsh were thinking not, as:
The danger would always be there that Collins and his group might use the intelligence system to make contacts to start negotiations with the enemy and make certain commitments that would prove a very serious handicap when proper official negotiations would be taken in hand.
Walsh did not provide a date for this discussion but it was presumably early in the war, before talks between the British Government and the Republican underground began in earnest. Unlike Brugha, who locked horns with Collins whenever he could, O’Connor had previously shown no indication that he held anything but trust towards him; indeed, the two had cooperated on a number of the famed prison-breaks.
If Walsh’s story is accurate, while accounting for the benefit of hindsight, it seems that the factionism that would plague, and finally kill, the revolutionary movement was already incubating beneath the surface.
In a further hint of things to come, another man, Dermot O’Hegarty, walked into the hotel and saw O’Connor and Walsh together. O’Hegarty was a close ally of Collins and it is telling that, when he joined the conversation, an argument soon grew between him and O’Connor. So heated was the exchange that Walsh felt it necessary to call over some of their mutual friends before things got out of hand.
That would come later.
A Surprise Extreme
Still, even after the worse had happened, the past camaraderie could linger on. Piaras Béaslaí and O’Connor were to be mortal enemies, yet, when composing his memoirs, Béaslaí wrote of the other with respect: “He was a man of considerable ability in his particular brand of activity, and…took a leading part in the planning of the most successful achievements of the Volunteers.”
Among these deeds were the jail-breaks of 1919, of which Béaslaí was twice a beneficiary: from Mountjoy in March and then Strangeways, Manchester, in October. The bonds between brothers-in-arms, and perhaps gratitude on Béaslaí’s part, drew together the two men – and future foes – closely enough for Béaslaí to leave a detailed pen-portrait:
He was a man of education and culture who concealed a strong sense of humour under an air of gloomy solemnity. He was dark haired, of medium stature, slightly built, hollow-cheeked, and seemingly not very robust. He spoke in a deep cavernous voice.
However tight they may have been, Béaslaí was still taken aback by the direction O’Connor took when their cause came to a fork in the road. Previously, O’Connor had not seemed “very ‘extreme’ in his views,” but then, Béaslaí was not alone in misjudging him, for “the extreme line of action taken by him after the passing of the Treaty was a surprise to many who knew him well.”
It is possible that not even O’Connor initially knew which way to turn. When Collins returned to Dublin in December 1921 with the rest of the Irish Plenipotentiaries, having put pen to the paper of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, one of the first things he did was to hold a forum of IRA luminaries, including O’Connor, Eoin O’Duffy and Gearóid O’Sullivan, in the Mansion House. Collins could sign whatever he wanted before him, but he was not naïve enough to think that the opinions of the men with guns could be overlooked.
The conference went sufficiently well for Collins to preside over the subsequent luncheon at the Gresham Hotel. Among those present was Father Patrick J. Doyle, being on amicable terms with many of the men at the table, including O’Connor, who had joked in the past about how the priest would end up on the scaffold for his seditious acquaintances. As the party ate, Father Doyle was able to observe the demeanour of his friend:
Although Rory had voted at the Volunteer meeting against acceptance of the Treaty, he was quite reconciled to abide by the majority decision of the Volunteers in favour of it.
Far from brooding on what had happened, O’Connor appeared to be looking forward to the future:
During the lunch, he took part in an animated discussion about the formation that the new Irish Army should adopt and urged very enthusiastically the adoption of the Swiss system of formation.
And yet, as Doyle observed, “a few months later Rory was out in armed opposition to the Provisional Government.” The whole thing remained a mystery to the priest, even after the passage of time:
I have never yet met any of the Volunteer officers who took up arms in that cause who could give a coherent account of the tragic split that ensued after the acceptance of the majority decision.
From the start, however, there were warning signs. Liam Archer worked under O’Connor in the IRA Engineering Department, and they were in the latter’s office on Marlborough Street, Dublin, when word of the Treaty reached them. Archer was as shocked as anyone at the idea of an Oath of Allegiance to the British monarch and asked O’Connor, as they walked to Collins’ own base in the Gresham, what they were to do:
He answered without hesitation – Oh, we must work it for all its worth, then after a slight pause he added But if I could get enough to support me I would oppose it wholeheartedly.
In that, O’Connor would be true to his word.
The Soldier’s Song
Even before the Treaty was ratified by the Dáil in January 1922, and while the delegates to that national body debated the merits of the Anglo-Irish agreement, O’Connor met with four other senior IRA officers – Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Séumas Robinson and Liam Mellows – for a parliament of their own on Heytesbury Street. The house at number 71 had been a reliable bolt-hole during the fight with the British and now it would serve as a venue for a conspiracy – this time against their own side.
“Rory’s eyes were sombre,” O’Malley noticed. “I noticed the grey streaks in his black hair.”
While all present were of like mind that the Treaty was unacceptable, binding as it did Ireland inside the British Empire, they were less certain on where the rest of the IRA stood. O’Connor wanted to waste no further time. “They mean to enforce to Treaty, but we must organise,” he said.
He was in favour of breaking away from GHQ as soon as the Dáil debates were over, seemingly not interested in whatever the result was. O’Malley approved of this bold course of action, as did Robinson, with Lynch keeping his own counsel – the odd man out, even then – and Mellows in less of a hurry, as he assured the others that the IRA would never tolerate the Treaty anyway. That the Dáil or the public might differ in opinion did not seem to occur to anyone, at least not to the extent it was worth considering.
Mellows’ wait-and-see attitude carried the room, perhaps because no one wanted to make a definite decision, and it was agreed between them to keep in touch while seeking whatever allies that they could. “Rory’s quiet humour broke the gravity,” wrote O’Malley in his memoirs, “soon we were chatting and laughing.”
It was no great surprise, at least to O’Malley, when the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty. Éamon de Valera resigned as its president in protest, though he appealed at a meeting of military men to put politics aside for the sake of unity and peace: a ship that had already sailed, to O’Malley’s mind, and to O’Connor’s as well.
The two met again when O’Malley dropped by the other’s house in Monkstown. O’Connor greeted him at the door, happy to see him, having sent word, which O’Malley had missed, for another, more exclusive, conclave that was to take place that evening in Dublin. While waiting, they killed time by playing records on the gramophone in the front room. The last tune was The Soldier’s Song, the anthem to the revolution, except O’Connor misplaced the needle of the gramophone, which drew out the notes and distorted the lyrics; appropriately so, thought O’Malley, a sign of the mess they were all in.
Out in the Open
The pair took the tram to Grafton Street and then walked to Nelson’s Pillar, continuing on to the back of Marlborough Street where O’Connor conducted his work. More soon came, coming up the wooden steps to the main office: Liam Lynch, Michael McCormick, Oscar Traynor, Tom Maguire, Seán Russell and others.
The room was not well lit. We sat on chairs forming three sides of a square, which Rory’s desk completed. A prismatic compass, a map measurer and a celluloid protractor stood against the ledge of the desk. To one side of them were coloured mapping inks and small slender mapping pens. Maps hung on the wall – a large scale map of Dublin; a map of Ireland with the divisional areas inserted in red pencil.
O’Connor’s skin, O’Malley saw, looked darker than usual. The light from the windows touched his cheeks and cast the rest of his face in shadow.
Once he was made chairman, O’Connor got to the point: GHQ could not to be trusted. The IRA still stood but not for long, as O’Connor was sure it would be disbanded and replaced with tame pro-Treaty cuckoos. Already the Provisional Government was recruiting men for such a move, while those who might oppose it were confused and directionless.
With time thus of the essence, it was agreed by the men in the room, as O’Connor jotted down the minutes, for an IRA Convention to be held, the first in a long while. If the Provisional Government was to refuse one, then an independent command was to be formed at once, both as an alternative and a challenge.
Such was the mood that when Richard Mulcahy, shortly after O’Connor’s military meeting, called one of his own in the Banba Hall, Parnell Square, O’Malley attended with two revolvers hidden beneath his coat. Pro-Treaty officers sat in one half of the semi-circle of chairs, Anti-Treatyites making up the other, as if to formally announce the break.
Choosing to overlook this unfortunate placement, Mulcahy, now the Minister of Defence, announced that their forces would continue to be the Republican Army. But O’Connor was not buying it. “A name will not make it so,” he said caustically as soon as Mulcahy had finished his piece.
The meeting escalated to Collins being called a traitor, provoking the Corkman to his feet in a rage. Mulcahy defused the tension with a few quiet words – an impressive feat, considering the passions simmering in the room. In a gesture of good faith, he proposed that the Anti-Treatyites appoint two of their number to attend GHQ meetings and ensure that nothing untoward was done.
O’Connor asked for some privacy in another room to discuss this and, when there, asked the others what they thought. Most wanted to break away then and there with no further time wasted but Lynch insisted they give Mulcahy’s idea a try. As Lynch was in charge of the Cork and Kerry brigades in the First Southern Division, the largest and best-armed of the IRA blocs outside Dublin, the rest had no choice but to comply.
At least Mulcahy was open to the idea of an overdue IRA Convention. The Army had begun as an independent body, with its own procedures and policies and, for some like O’Connor, it was time to revive it as such.
Law of the Jungle
Lynch had inadvertently exposed two profound and disturbing truths. Firstly, while the Anti-Treatyites could or would no longer work with their pro-Treaty counterparts, they were scarcely more united among themselves.
The second was that, for all the lofty talk, strength was what really counted. This was quickly grasped by O’Malley, who put the lesson to the test when he returned from Dublin to where he held sway as O/C of the Second Southern Division, encompassing IRA units from Limerick, Tipperary and Kilkenny. Of the five brigades under his command, four were willing to follow his lead in resisting the Treaty, which meant, in more immediate terms, his former superiors in GHQ.
The first opportunity to make their discontent known was in Limerick in March 1922. British troops had withdrawn, as per the Treaty terms, leaving their barracks open for the taking, and O’Malley was determined that the Pro-Treatyites would not be the ones benefitting. A stand-off ensued as local IRA men from the opposing – and increasingly belligerent – factions hastened to seize and secure whatever positions they could in the city. Reinforcements came from Dublin and Clare for the Pro-Treatyites, while O’Malley was joined by Tipperary and Cork cohorts.
Not even two months had passed since the Treaty was signed and the country was already on the brink of fratricide – still, better sooner than later, in O’Malley’s view.
This was the argument he put to O’Connor when O’Malley briefly returned to Dublin, but O’Connor, having been so adamant at the start, now pulled back in the eleventh hour. There was still a chance at a bloodless resolution, he told O’Malley, as he turned down the request for aid to be sent. O’Malley and his allies were on their own in Limerick, though O’Connor, rather lamely, expressed the hope that all would work out for the best.
Things did – briefly.
Negotiations in Limerick led to a face-saving agreement for both sides to back down with honour intact, proof that the split was reversible and conflict not inevitable. That is, until later that month, on the 22nd March, when Mulcahy announced that any IRA convention, such as the one set to take place in four days’ time on the 26th – which he had been previously agreeable towards – was “contrary to the orders of the General Headquarters staff, and will be sectional in character.” Any officer in attendance could consider themselves stripped of rank.
For those who had distrusted Mulcahy and the rest of the Provisional Government from the start, this was all the vindication they needed. Just after Mulcahy’s proscription, on that same evening, Irish reporters, as well as ones in Dublin on behalf of British and American newspapers, received an invitation to a press conference in Suffolk Street.
As the Republican Party had its offices there, the pressmen who accepted might have expected the presence of someone like Éamon de Valera – no longer the President of the Republic, but still the most recognised politician in the anti-Treaty ranks. Instead, in walked a relative stranger who took his place at the large table in the centre of the room before the assembled newshounds.
Man: Gentlemen, I understand you want to know something about army matters.
Journalist: Who are you?
Man: I am Roderic O’Connor, Director of Engineering, General Headquarters.
Another journalist: Do you represent GHQ?
O’Connor: I do not represent GHQ. I represent 80 per cent of the IRA.
Not Peace But a Sword
In regards to the remaining 20 per cent, O’Connor said, when asked further, he hoped in time to win over 19 per cent. “Dáil Éireann,” he continued:
…has done an act which has no moral right to do. The Volunteers are not going into the British Empire, and stand for liberty.
This defiance on O’Connor’s part, and that of the 80 percent of the Army if he spoke true, had been some time in the making, as O’Connor went on to explain.
While the Treaty, the immoral act O’Connor had spoken of, was being debated at the start of the year, IRA officers from the South and the West of the country had come to him and Liam Mellows to say how badly they felt let down. To right this wrong, an IRA convention was set to be held four days hence, on the 26th March, and though the Provisional Government had banned it, the event would go ahead anyway.
Which was only proper, considering how:
The Army feels that the Dáil has let down the Republic and has created a dilemma for the Army and the country. The Army feels it must right itself. It has sworn an oath of allegiance to the Republic, whilst giving its allegiance also to the Dáil.
Such a choice was no choice at all, in O’Connor’s strident view. He was, however, hazier on a number of questions put to him.
Journalist: Take it that the Irish people vote 80 per cent, or more, in favour of the policy adopted by the Dáil, will the attitude of the 80 per cent of the Army whom you claim to represent be the same towards them as you say it is now towards the Dáil?
O’Connor: I cannot answer for the Army on that. That will be a question for the new Executive which will be set up next week.
Journalist: Is the army going to obey Mr de Valera or the people, through those they put in control?
O’Connor: President de Valera asked that the army obey the existing GHQ, but the army for which I speak cannot, because the Minister of Defence has broken his agreement.
As for how Mulcahy, the Minister in question, had done so, O’Connor explained that it was by asking IRA members to join an alternative army, one set up for the purpose of keeping Ireland inside the British Empire. Mulcahy might deny it, but O’Connor held that it was true all the same. As for the allegiance of the IRA, that answer was obvious:
The Republic still exists. There are times when revolution is justified. The army in many countries has overturned Governments from time to time. There is no Government in Ireland now to give the IRA a lead, hence we want to straighten out the impossible position which exists.
The Dáil was certainly not such a government, at least not how O’Connor saw it. Certainly, if the Dáil was in fact the Government, then the IRA was presently in revolt against it. O’Connor’s tone was matter-of-fact, as it was when questioned further on the obvious consequences of soldiers making their own decisions.
Journalist: Do we take it we are going to have a military dictatorship, then?
O’Connor: You can take it that way if you like.
Journalist: Then the convention won’t make for peace?
O’Connor: It will make for the liberty of the country, I believe. The Treaty section is going off the straight road and into the bogs to get freedom. We hold that is wrong.
To be continued in: Out of the Republic: Rory O’Connor and the Start of the Civil War, 1922 (Part IV)
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 238 ; Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume 1 (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008), p. 131
 Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999), pp. 79, 127
 Neligan, p. 127 ; O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 131
 University College Dublin Archives, Michael Hayes Papers, P53/344
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001)
Béaslaí, Piaras. Michael Collins and the Making of a New Ireland, Volume I (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2008)
Neligan, David. The Spy in the Castle (London: Prendeville Publishing Limited, 1999)
O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)
O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)
Ireland was at war and on dual fronts. The first was the official one, as part of which the country contributed men and munitions to the British campaigns in the fields of France and Flanders. But there was a second struggle, the one at home which grew in the shadows, waiting to emerge. By the start of 1918, these two theatres of war threatened to merge when the demand for extra resources on the Western Front made conscription for Ireland an attractive option for the British Government, if a very dangerous one, considering the strength of Irish feeling against such an imposition.
Valentine Jackson was working for the Rathdown Rural District Council, Co. Dublin, when an officer from the British Army – by the rank of Major, Jackson believed – stopped by, asking to see the man responsible for the city streets. Jackson led him to the desk of Rory O’Connor, the Engineer of Paving. After O’Connor assured his caller that anything said would be in confidence, the Major explained the reason for his visit, saying that:
…there would be extensive street fighting in Dublin if conscription were enforced and that they would mainly use tanks, some of them of a heavy type, in such fighting. He wanted O’Connor to give him a list of streets which would be unsafe for the heaviest tanks, on account of sewers and other undergrounds works.
Playing the part of a dutiful civil servant perfectly, O’Connor asked for more information on the vehicles in question, such as their weights and load distribution, to better assess which streets would be riskiest for them. These details the Major did not know, though he promised to provide them later. The two men chatted for a while on the finer points of urban combat before the Major left, “very well pleased with the interview,” according to Jackson, who apparently had been hovering about to witness the exchange.
The Major had apparently never asked himself why a pen-pusher would know so much about street fighting, particularly where Dublin was concerned. During this same period of uncertainty, O’Connor called in on Jackson’s own office, located in the same building.
He wanted my opinion on a proposal that in the event of an attempt to enforce conscription the water supply should be cut off from all the city military establishments.
Not for nothing was Dublin Corporation viewed by the British authorities as a hotbed of sedition. While sympathetic to O’Connor’s idea, Jackson did not think it practical, explaining that the British Army would surely be competent enough to restart water pipes in the event of them being blocked or cut. Besides, fire hydrants could be used with hose-lines to provide water if necessary.
This was a setback to O’Connor, but he remained:
…anxious to consider the matter further so we spent the next few days driving around the city barracks during which he noted the size and exact position of the various branch pipes together with their valves and fittings.
Such contingencies proved unnecessary, for the Government thought better of the idea and cancelled its plans for conscription in Ireland. The two sides, in the form of the British state and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), had narrowly avoided a bloody showdown – and bloody it would undoubtedly have been. While discussing the situation with Michael Collins, while the threat of conscription still hovered in the air, Ernie O’Malley was handed notes detailing plans for the demolition of bridges, railways and engines throughout the country, all of which were signed by O’Connor as Director of Engineering for the IRA GHQ.
Later, O’Malley would meet O’Connor, as one senior IRA figure to another. Like many, he would find himself intrigued by the other man’s looks and enigmatic personality. “Rory O’Connor talked with a sense of humour; the grooves tightening his cheek muscles while his eyes smiled,” he later wrote. “He always had what I called an interior look.”
Plans for Plans
To O’Connor, the end of conscription as a potential flashpoint was but a delay in the conflict he had been working towards, even before the Easter Rising of 1916 had transmogrified the Irish public mood. The anxious peace that had settled over the country could not last indefinitely and, when the storm at last broke out, O’Connor and his comrades would be armed and ready.
At least, in theory.
If the British authorities were often woefully blind to the insurgency brewing right beneath their noses – as in the case of the Major discussing strategy with a disingenuously helpful clerk – then the rebel underground only reached a state of readiness through slow trial and painful error. In early 1920, O’Connor came to Jackson with another request: could he find a quiet place out of town in which to test some explosives recently raided from a British Army depot?
I selected a site by the east side of the Upper Reservoir at Roundwood then under construction, but on which work was suspended. The site was Corporation property, well away from any habitation and contained a couple of derelict houses.
Jackson joined O’Connor in testing out the pilfered goods. As no one came to investigate the six or seven blasts, he had evidently chosen the spot well. The same could not be said for the explosives, being of poor quality as they were. “O’Connor was disappointed,” Jackson later wrote. “He attributed the result to deterioration of the material.”
Still, one step at a time. Even if munitions were not easy to come by, then the IRA at least had an organisation structure to build on. Part of this was its Engineering Department, formed in the autumn of 1917 by O’Connor, and consisting of men with similarly technical minds. One of whom was Jack Plunkett, brother of the late 1916 Signatory, and a long-time friend of O’Connor. Together they pored over a large Ordinance Survey map of Ireland, plotting out the best methods of attack, with a particular emphasis on the railways lines that the British Army often used. These plans “Rory and I practically laid out alone,” according to Plunkett.
Even many years later, the memories of the time the two men spent together in shared enterprise could move him. “I would like to say a good deal about Rory but it hurts too much.”
The 5th Battalion
Another team member was Liam Archer. Like O’Connor and Plunkett, he had been ‘out’ in Easter Week, and continued on in the IRA as a signal officer for the Dublin Brigade. Two years after the Rising:
When conscription was threatened in 1918 I was transferred to the staff of Rory O’Connor who had, I think, shortly before been made Director of Engineering. It was decided to organise a Company of Engineers under direct control of GHQ with the special mission of carrying out extensive sabotage of communications in the event of conscription being imposed.
From this, the 5th Dublin Battalion, or the Engineering Corps, was formed. While initially a Dublin matter, a two week-long course was set up for budding engineers from other IRA units in the country, with O’Connor, Plunkett and Archer acting as lecturers. “In time, we developed training in the use of explosives and demolition of rails and bridges and the mining of roads,” Archer recalled.
The shelving of conscription did nothing to change the IRA agenda: to fight British rule with every tool at hand. As this struggle intensified in Dublin and elsewhere in Ireland, O’Connor issued a prohibition against members of the 5th Battalion partaking in raids, ambushes or other standard IRA missions, however keen they were to do so. Such men were specialists, O’Connor ruled, and so were not to risk themselves in operations that ‘foot soldiers’ could do.
The commanders of the other four Dublin battalions did not disagree, as Archer described:
They considered, first, that the opportunities for such should be the preference of their units and, second, that it would be impossible for them that the 5th Battalion was carrying out, or had carried out, an operation in their areas, and that this fact could gravely endanger the success of their operations, and the safety of their personnel.
By keeping the 5th Battalion removed from the others, it was hoped that they would avoid getting their wires crossed. Even after O’Connor was promoted to another command and this prohibition of his officially lifted, the engineers of the 5th Battalion were only used when their particular skills were necessary.
Life was becoming risky enough as it was.
There was no formal declaration of war, no grand gesture, no Pearl Harbour or Fort Sumter or Gulf of Tonkin. Historians were to point to the Soloheadbeg Ambush in January 1919 as the trigger but that was merely the first in a series of incidents that slowly proliferated into a full-blown insurgency. Until then, the various IRA units limited their operations to one-offs, designed for a specific goal rather than the big picture.
In March 1919, Michael Lynch, O/C of the Fingal Brigade, answered the summons to the Dublin IRA headquarters at Gardiner Street, where O’Connor inquired about the amount of ‘gun cotton’ available. When Lynch asked him what for:
Rory informed me that the idea underlying his request was the blowing down of the boundary wall of Mountjoy Prison, in order to effect the release of some of our men, whose presence was vital to us in our organisation scheme and who had been sentenced to long terms of imprisonment in Mountjoy.
While Lynch had access to some such ‘gun cotton’, he was horrified at how much O’Connor wanted. “My God, man,” he said, “if you use that, you kill every prisoner in Mountjoy!”
All the amount needed was five to ten pounds, insisted Lynch. As an avid reader of the American Scientific Supplement, Lynch considered himself an expert on the matter. So did O’Connor, who insisted on the original figure stated. When the two men could not agree, the explosives notion was dropped. If Lynch was correct in his fears, then the Mountjoy residents were luckier than they could have known.
Others present at the meeting chipped in with their own ideas, the best being to waylay the van transporting the prisoner in mind – Robert Barton – to Dublin Castle for interrogation. As they had inside knowledge of this, the IRA men were able to plan for when and where: the van moving down Berkeley Road, to be blocked by a handcart with a forty-foot-long ladder fixed across, allowing those on standby to rush in.
When the day came, all worked as it should – save for one small snag.
“Barton was not in it,” Lynch recalled. “We indulged in a fair amount of bad language at our ill luck.”
Shortly afterwards, O’Connor met with Lynch again, showing him the letter from Barton that had been smuggled out. To O’Connor’s dismay, the prisoner was insisting that he escape on a certain date, which just happened to be a night of a full moon. Having already filed through the bars of his cell-door, Barton would make his way to the yard and then throw a handkerchief-wrapped brick over the outer wall to let the others know where he was.
From there, they were to help him over and out – easier said than done, as O’Connor griped.
Nonetheless, an opportunity was an opportunity.
On the 16th March 1919, the team of men from Dublin’s G Company gathered for their briefing by Peadar Clancy, their commanding officer, and O’Connor. The mission was drawn out on a blackboard as each participant was allocated his position on the Canal Bank, near the north-west corner of Mountjoy Prison. Some were to wait by the wall, hugging the shadows, while others paced the canal, batons in hand, in case any policemen came their way.
“Each man knew what was expected,” described Patrick J. Kelly, one of the group, “and the risk of a slip up on the part of anyone.”
At the chime of midnight, a rope-ladder was tossed up to the top of the wall. After all the talk of explosions and the drama of an open-air hijack, Barton’s liberation was to come by relatively simple means – that is, if all went as it should.
The first throw of the ladder failed to clear the twenty-foot height of the wall. The second succeeded and the man who had cast it waited with his hands on his end to steady the prisoner’s climb on the other side. However, as Kelly watched:
No strain came on the rope and we thought the plan on the inside had miscarried. We were wondering what to do next when a small stone was thrown over from the inside to let us know he was there and that something was amiss.
The other man shifted the rope-ladder into a better position, allowing Barton to make the climb to the top of the wall, from where he jumped down into the blanket outstretched for him by several of the others.
His weight was too much for the men holding it and he had a bad bump on the ground but escaped injury, and was soon on his way to the waiting car with Rory and Peadar.
O’Connor and Barton sat in the back, while Kelly got in besides the driver. With revolvers kept ready in the event of being pulled over by the police, the men drove through the darkened city to Donnybrook. O’Connor and Barton disembarked at Herbert Park and thanked the other two before walking out into the night.
The Irish revolution had scored a coup as “Bob Barton…was considered a very important man in the movement,” according to Kelly. Afterwards “it was very interesting to read the papers next day with their accounts of the escape and their theories as to the way it was managed.”
One of the newspapers in question, the Evening Herald, was helped by how one of its staff, Michal Knightly, doubled as an IRA intelligence officer. O’Connor visited him in his office immediately after Barton’s flight, fully aware of its propaganda value. He was so breathless with excitement that Knightly had to wait while O’Connor rested in a chair before providing the scoop.
Barton would later go on to put his name to the Anglo-Irish Treaty, more than two years later, in December 1921. Whether O’Connor would have been so keen to spring him had he known…but that is a different story.
For the moment, the only story that mattered was the one Knightly had obligingly emblazoned in the papers of the Evening Herald:
MR. R.C. BARTON. M.P., MISSING FROM MOUNTJOY
A POLITE LETTER
The last line was a reference to Barton’s cheeky parting-shot to his gaolers, a left-behind note in the style of a disappointed hotel guest: since he was leaving due to the discomfort of his accommodation, could his baggage be kept safe until sent for?
Showing an evident delight at official discomfort, Knightly reported how:
The prison authorities…are “out of their minds over the whole affair,” and “at their wits’ ends” to know how the prisoner escaped.”
Thirteen days later, the Evening Herald would have a similar story to tell. Like every good sequel, this one was bigger and more dramatic than before:
20 SINN FEIN PRISONERS ESCAPE
If the secrets behind Barton’s flight had remained as such, then the prison-break on the 29th March 1919, conducted brazenly in broad daylight, was anything but a mystery:
It appears that some of their number suddenly turned on the wardens who were in charge of them, and held them down while their comrades were arranging a rope ladder over a thirty-foot wall…the first thing the outside public noticed was the extraordinary spectacle of men sliding down a rope from the top of the jail wall to the canal bank.
“The escape exceeded our most sanguine expectations,” recalled one of the escapees, Piaras Béaslaí, who credited O’Connor and Dick McKee, the O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade, with the planning of the feat. But it had initially been touch and go, when a sudden snowstorm almost cancelled the daily allotment of recreation outside in the yard. Thankfully, the weather cleared in time for exercise-hour to go ahead at 3 pm.
A prisoner signalled from a window to the IRA watchman on Claude Road that the escapees-to-be were in place. When a whistle was sounded from the outside, the prisoners dashed for the designated part of the wall, while a rope-ladder appeared at the top and came down for them to climb. Once outside, the freed men ran along the canal bank to where a rescue party were waiting with bicycles to take them into town, where they were practically home safe, according to Béaslaí:
The moment they got out in the streets among the people they were made safe, for everybody befriended them. Such was the famous daylight escape from Mountjoy, which seemed the culmination of a series of bloodless triumphs for the Irish Volunteers.
“How the ladder came to be fastened is a mystery,” added the Evening Herald. If the item in question was the hero of the hour, then it was also the sole casualty, being found discarded next to the canal. “It is now in the hands of the authorities.”
Replacing the lost item became a priority, for there were other Irishmen languishing in captivity as political prisoners, among being Béaslaí again, who did not enjoy his liberty for long before being rearrested while cycling in Finglas village. The prison authorities learnt their lesson by transferring Béaslaí out of Ireland and to Strangeways, Manchester, to deter any further escapes. Béaslaí was not cowed, instead remaining in surreptitious contact with Michael Collins, the two engaging in a long-distance discourse on the best way to spring Béaslaí once more.
To this end, Collins dispatched O’Connor to England. A coded letter to Austin Stack, another inmate in Strangeways, was signed from his “loving cousin Maud”, assuring him that “we are all busy preparing for the examination. Professor Rory has arrived. He is a very nice man.”
Even if the past two rescues had been roaring successes – save for Barton’s spectacles, which had fallen off as he cleared the wall – those responsible were not going to rest on their laurels. As a process, prison-breaking would be inspected, improved and, as much as possible, perfected.
O’Connor relished the challenge. Dubbed the ‘O/C. Escapes’ by Jack Plunkett, he “frequently talked to me about it and he got not only pleasure but amusement out of it.”
A replacement ladder was procured, after first being tested for the lightness of its rope, balanced with weights at the end. In delegating Plunkett for such work:
Rory, while being extremely reticent, gave me all the information I needed to obtain the necessary material and as was the habit in those times, I always refrained from asking unnecessary questions.
These tight lips earned the respect of another consummate professional. “I notice your staff don’t ask any questions,” Dick McKee told O’Connor approvingly.
By the end of his investigation, Plunkett could provide a finished product that, while formidable, presented a practical challenge:
The Strangeways rope-ladder was very bulky, as it had wooden rings and two pairs of restraining ropes, one pair outside and one pair inside the wall, and it had to be carried through Manchester on a handcart with a piece of sacking thrown over it.
The first date for the rescue, the 11th October 1919, was postponed when the ladder in question did not arrive in time. A message hidden in a pot of jam to Strangeways alerted the Irish captives that the next attempt was to be on the 25th.
As with Mountjoy, the rescue team selected a particular section of the wall, this one being next to a street with no houses and thus less civilians to get in the way. All the same, members of the Manchester IRA company, formed from Irish émigrés in the city who were willing to do their part for the cause, stood at either end to block it off, while two more paced the wall, disguised as window-cleaners.
“When everything was in readiness,” described Patrick O’Donoghue, the Manchester O/C, “Rory O’Connor blew a whistle which was the pre-arranged signal and this signal was answered from inside by one of the prisoners.”
The new, improved rope-ladder was thrown up but failed to fall down low enough on the other side for the inmates to reach. Two more attempts were made to no avail and, just when all looked lost, Peadar Clancy – who had also come over from Dublin – quickly placed an extension ladder against the wall and climbed to shift the rope one into place:
When this was done Austin Stack was the first man to come over the wall in safety. Béaslaí was next and he got stuck against the wall half way up because his other escaping comrades were trying to use the rope at the same time as he was endeavouring to make the ascent. It was realised that only one man could climb the rope at a time.
Six men altogether got over, including Stack and Béaslaí, though the latter did not find it as easy as the last occasion, cutting his hand to the bone on the rope as he slid down. A waiting taxi took him and the other five to a safe-house, where they stayed for a week before he and Stack were taken by train to Liverpool, and from there to Dublin.
A friendly crewman allowed the pair to bunk inside his ship’s forecastles. “The other sailors showed no curiosity; they were used to such smugglings,” Béaslaí noted. After they disembarked at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay in the morning, they were informed by the driver sent to meet them, Joe O’Reilly – one of Collins’ ‘Squad’ – about how a police detective had been shot and wounded the previous night in St Stephen’s Green.
There was, after all, a war still one, one that was creeping further and further into the open.
‘Bloodless triumphs’, Béaslaí had called these kind of daring exploits, but that was not a state that could last for long. One Sunday morning, in September 1920, the Engineering Department arranged for a demonstration of their work on the Kilmashogue Mountain. The night before and again on the morning, Plunkett received word that the British were aware of their planned activities. Though he passed the warning on to O’Connor, the session went ahead anyway.
On the mountainside, the men exploded several small charges. As well as O’Connor and Plunkett, Richard Mulcahy, the IRA Chief of Staff, was present, along with Archer and several others. More participants had been expected, including two companies’ worth of men from the 5th Battalion. When some time had passed and those absent were still nowhere to be seen, the rest decided to proceed anyway, detonating about eight or nine bombs.
“Between two of these explosions we heard quite a fusillade of shots and later on several more which we found difficult to account for,” Plunkett remembered.
Despite the prior warnings, the men failed to put two and two together, and did nothing more than send out one of their number downhill to investigate before continuing. The engineers got a little too involved in their work, and disaster was narrowly averted when, according to Plunkett:
…one of the charges which had a large stone on top of it, was fired, the stone went straight up in the air and came down almost on the spot where one man, who had stood too close, had thrown himself down with the fright.
So near to him was the stone when it fell that I was able to touch it and the man’s leg with one hand. The stone which weighed about 30 lbs. was almost completely buried in the earth. No one was hurt.
When the first runner did not come back, a second was dispatched after him – and quickly returned with urgent news.
Blood on the Mountain
The missing two companies had drawn up next to St Columba’s College, the agreed rendezvous point on the mountain, and the forty or so men were about to set off uphill to join the others when they were ambushed by a large number of Auxiliaries, the militarised branch of the RIC which the British Government had formed in response to an increasingly defiant Ireland.
They had been hiding on the grounds of St Columba’s College the night before, taking care to detain passers-by who might warn their targets. The unsuspecting IRA men were caught entirely off-guard when armed foes emerged from behind the walls of the college, demanding for them to put their hands up.
“I should mention that this was the very first operation carried out in Ireland by the Auxiliaries,” wrote Plunkett.
The remaining IRA men uphill promptly fled, with O’Connor and Mulcahy going in one direction, and Plunkett and Archer taking another. The Auxiliaries had already departed, taking with them the Irishmen they had caught as prisoners – save one. Plunkett and Archer came across a body on the mountainside. Seán Doyle had reached for the grenade in his pocket, only to be shot down by the Auxiliaries.
“The man’s shirt was completely soaked in blood,” Plunkett described. He did not recognise the corpse and so turned to his companion. “I asked Liam Archer to have a look at him and was quite disgusted that he wouldn’t.”
Archer made no mention of that particular detail in his own account. To him, the day “was a lesson never to discount local knowledge,” as the warnings that morning about an enemy presence had been inexplicably ignored. It was a rude reminder to O’Connor and his colleagues that their war had a steep and unforgiving learning curve.
A month later, in October 1920, O’Connor, McKee, Mulcahy, Collins and Oscar Traynor met in Gardiner’s Place, Dublin, to discuss the plight of the latest prisoner in need of rescue. Time was of the essence, as Kevin Barry was due to hang for his part in an ambush on British troops, and O’Connor resurfaced his idea of blowing a hole through the wall of Mountjoy in order to allow IRA men to rush in.
Whether this would have led to the disaster Michael Lynch feared remains unknown. The plan proceeded far enough for men from the Dublin Brigade to get into position outside Mountjoy, in anticipation for the explosion, only for it to be cancelled for fear that the wardens would kill Barry rather than let him go.
As if to signal the end of an era, Barry’s sentence went ahead and he was hanged on the 1st November 1920, the first such political execution since the Easter Rising. The days of thumbing the nose at hapless wardens seemed over, as the war for Irish independence entered a darker, less forgiving stage.
Eye for an Eye
Faced with this increased pressure, the IRA redoubled its efforts, outside Ireland as well as in. “Wholesale burnings were then taking place in Ireland,” as described by Michael O’Leary, “so that I am sure reprisals in England of a similar nature at this time would be considered very appropriate, as we believed ‘an eye for an eye’.”
As part of the Liverpool IRA Company, O’Leary was ideally placed for this sort of asymmetrical warfare. Paraffin oil, waste cotton-rags and other materials for lighting fires were gathered, the targets being the cotton warehouses and timber yards in the city. The men involved were summoned to Joseph’s Hall on Scotland Road, where they met O’Connor, whose duties once again involved sabotage, only this time on enemy soil and not just in Liverpool, but Manchester and London as well, so O’Connor informed them.
Clearly, the IRA GHQ was taking these overseas operations to heart, and O’Conor, having operated in England before, was the obvious choice to direct this latest theatre of the war. Gratified at the willingness of the men before him, O’Connor said he was off to Manchester but would return to see them in time for their mission to commence.
This he did so on the 26th November 1920, the day before the due date, and asked if there were any questions. O’Leary had one:
I asked him what would be our position after the fires, or how we were to act. He replied, “Keep quiet for a fortnight and repeat similar operations.”
O’Leary did not think this feasible. After all, most of them were already known to the authorities for their subversive activities and would surely be arrested before the two weeks passed. Instead, O’Leary wanted the Company to start anew immediately after the first attack, on the following morning, and begin a fresh wave of fires, this time against the shops in the city centre, and then moving on to the outskirts until finally brought low.
O’Connor turned down this suggestion, either because he did not wish to condone suicide and the waste of manpower or that he believed the men would still be at liberty after the fortnight for the second set of burnings as originally envisioned. O’Leary was not convinced but went ahead with the rest of the Company that night, on the 27th November.
He was gratified at how not a single man was absent when they assembled, before setting forth in teams of three to six towards their assigned targets. O’Leary was to be even more thrilled at their success and speed:
In less than 5 minutes a line of fire, 8 miles in length, from Seaforth to Gaston was started, resulting in the complete destruction of 14 cotton warehouses and 4 large timber yards.
The only failure was that of O’Leary and his group, being interrupted as they prepared the oil-soaked rags with which to burn down their allocated warehouse. O’Leary fired his revolver as two policemen wrestled with the man on watch, wounding one in the shoulder. Having gained the upper hand, he forced the pair against a wall and took aim, only for his gun to jam. The IRA men now fled into the night-time mist, with the shrill blasts of whistles behind them.
Leaving a Legacy
O’Connor learnt about the success of the Liverpool mission while in Newcastle; at least, according to Liam McMahon, who had accompanied him from Dublin to help set up a Newcastle IRA company. The pair were watching a cinema newsreel when Liverpool came up, much to O’Connor’s approval. “Well, that is something,” he said to McMahon. “I hope Manchester will do as well.”
O’Leary told a different version as, in his account, he reported straight to O’Connor, waiting in Joseph’s Hall, after escaping from the warehouse he had failed to destroy. O’Leary then took the morning train to Manchester. O’Connor could plan ahead all he wanted, but O’Leary knew Liverpool would be too dangerous for him now. As he had predicted, a wave of arrests followed, including his own, despite his efforts to put distance between himself and the scene of the crime.
O’Leary could take comfort in how his troubles had not been in vain. “It is impossible to estimate the damage at the various fires, but a rough computation puts it at over a quarter of a million,” reported the news about Liverpool.
In addition, Daniel Ward, a 19-year-old labourer, had been killed that night after alerting some policemen to the four suspicious-looking men loitering in the doorway of a warehouse. In the resulting struggle, one of the men fired a revolver, hitting Ward with fatal results. This account matches O’Leary’s own in a number of details, but whether that is coincidental or if O’Leary omitted the blood on his hands when relaying his story years later is another of the period’s many unanswered questions.
Similar mass burnings had been intended to take place simultaneously in London and Manchester, but these proved to be damp squibs. On the same night as the Liverpool fires, police intercepted a band of men off White Cross Street, Aldersgate, London, outside a timber store. The cotton waste, scrap paper and paraffin they had on them would suggest identical intentions as in Liverpool, as would the gun they brandished at the policemen. Otherwise, London remained untroubled by the end of the 27th November.
Manchester, likewise, had been underwhelming in performance, as few of the IRA there had been quite as keen as their Liverpudlian counterparts to undertake such a mission. “Rory O’Connor afterwards told me that he was very disappointed,” O’Leary recalled.
Patrick O’Donoghue, as captain of the Manchester Company, would admit this inactivity on his men’s part, explaining that:
It was felt that our units were not sufficiently organised to carry out the destruction of warehouses on a large scale.
Despite this mixed success, O’Connor’s campaign of arson in Britain would live on in Republican memory. Sixteen years later, in the summer of 1938, two IRA veterans from the War of Independence, Seán Russell and Maurice Twomey, were sitting on the grounds of the Spa Hotel, New York, when the former reminisced about the damage O’Connor had helped inflict on the enemy homeland. Twomey was sceptical as to how useful this history lesson could be to them now but, to Russell, the late O’Connor had written the guidebook for his own bombing operation, to be undertaken in the following year.
To be continued in: Out of the Ranks: Rory O’Connor and the Anglo-Irish Treaty, 1920-2 (Part III)
Something was up – Lieutenant Laurence Nugent knew that at least. After all, his superior officer, Captain T.J. Cullen, had received word, in the lead-up to the Easter Week of 1916, to ready their men in preparation for a freight of rifles that was said to be on its way to Ireland.
Nugent and Cullen were in something of an odd position. When the Irish Volunteers split almost two years previously, in September 1914, both had elected to go with the majority and form the National Volunteers. But, though training continued as before, the old spark was lost. Members began dropping out of the ranks, never to return.
When Éamonn Ceannt addressed a Dublin parade of the National Volunteers in August 1915 on behalf of the rival Irish Volunteers, both Cullen and Nugent were receptive to a possible change to their stupefying pace. There was the chance of a shipment of guns and ammunition into the country, Ceannt confided, too large for his organisation to handle alone. Would the National Volunteers be interested in taking part in any action – and probably soon – for the freedom of Ireland?
Every man present agreed and, from then on, the National Volunteers in Dublin could train with a goal in mind. But, by the end of the week before that of Easter 1916, news filtered down that the promised rifles were not coming after all. Orders for an uprising were cancelled, and that appeared to be that.
Nugent was on his way to work on Easter Tuesday when he chanced upon a group of women and children watching from the top of a street leading to St Stephen’s Green, where a man – so Nugent was told – lay dead inside the park railings. Nugent pressed forward to see for himself and was ordered back by the British soldiers who were occupying the Shelbourne Hotel, opposite the park. Bullets were whining through the air, and Nugent tried warning the onlookers about the danger, but they paid him no attention, seeming more curious than concerned about the battle unfolding in their city.
Nugent seems to have been equally blasé in his own way, for he continued on to his shop at 9 Lower Baggot Street. When Captain Cullen came in with another man who was – incongruously enough – carrying half a ham and some mutton, Nugent sent them upstairs, out of sight from his customers, for he recognised Cullen’s companion as Rory O’Connor, a leading figure in the Irish Volunteers.
“That was a close shave,” said Cullen, taking off O’Connor’s hat. As Nugent examined the hat, he found it had been holed through on either side. Looking at its owner, he saw a burnt break in O’Connor’s thick black hair, made by, say, a passing bullet.
Roderic Ignatius Patrick O’Connor
In the years to come, O’Connor was to leave a striking impression on many who had known him. “He was a smallish, very dark man, dark skin, blue jaws,” remembered Geraldine Dillon (née Plunkett), “he had to shave twice a day and had such a deep voice that it seemed to slow his speech, yet he had great charm.” This charisma worked itself on her brothers, George and Jack, both of whom followed him unquestioningly.
Another Plunkett sibling on close terms with O’Connor was Joseph. For someone like O’Connor, looking to strike a blow for Irish freedom, this connection meant a lot, for Joseph Plunkett sat on the Military Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). The family property at Larkfield, Co. Dublin, became the base for the growing number of young Irishmen united in their desire to overthrow British rule in Ireland.
As part of this, O’Connor worked with George and Jack on their brother’s staff, along with Michael Collins – another rising star in the revolutionary underground – and Tommy Dillon, Geraldine’s future husband. O’Connor was put in charge of engineering, a role which suited his talents.
He had worked on the engineering staff of the then Midland Great Western Railway in Ireland, before emigrating to Canada in 1910. There, he had been employed in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway and afterwards the Canadian Northern Railway. During this time, he was responsible for the laying of some 1,500 miles of railroad, according to the estimations of his brother, Norbert.
In 1915, O’Connor returned to Ireland. His closeness to the Plunketts was such that Norbert believed he had come back “at the request of Joseph Plunkett.”
Having said that, there is not much to indicate that O’Connor even knew Joseph Plunkett at that stage. Also, his motive for returning seems to have been not for any brewing rebellion but instead to fight for King and Country in the Great War – an odd desire for a budding Fenian. Inspiration came from John Redmond’s call for Irishmen to enlist in order to secure favourable terms for Home Rule, though O’Connor did not intend to go quite as far as joining the British Army, preferring instead a different military that was on the same side. He told Dillon:
…that he was responding to Redmond’s call and that a Colonel…had promised to get him a comission [sic] in the Engineering Corp of the Canadian army. I told him to take his time and explained the situation to him. I brought him out to Larkfield and he soon gave up on the idea of joining the British forces.
O’Connor and Dillon had known each before as school chums at Clongowes Wood. They met again when Dillon came to study in Dublin in 1905, and O’Connor, recognising a kindred spirit, introduced him to the Young Ireland Branch of the United Irish League, a grassroots movement for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP).
Both joined the committee, as did Patrick J. Little, a future government minister, who accredited O’Connor with being one of the driving forces in a “remarkably clever and interesting” body of young men, consisting mostly of students and professionals, who wanted a voice in how their country should be run.
Young Ireland proved a touch too radical for the IPP grandees, one of whom, Joe Devlin, tried to persuade them, sometime in 1905 or 1906, to take a less strident approach. He failed, but the divergent opinions on board the committee proved too fractious and the group broke up in 1915, while O’Connor was still working in Canada.
Shortly after his homecoming, and diverted from his original idea of enlisting, O’Connor went into business with Dillon, setting up together the Larkfield Chemical Company, the intent being to produce aspirins. From the outset, they ran into difficulties with the authorities, against which they hired their old Young Ireland colleague, Little, as a solicitor. As Little described:
We floated the company, in spite of a refusal to allow us to do so, under a regulation of D.O.R.A (Defence of the Realm Act). On the legal advice of my brother, Edward, I found that D.O.R.A. did not prevail over an Act of Parliament and proceeded to float our company.
Complications continued when machinery purchased from Glasgow arrived defective. The offending suppliers were taken to court and the suit settled for £2,000.
In any case, O’Connor and Dillon, with the assistance of the Plunketts, on whose property in Larkfield they worked, had become more interested in fermenting rebellion than curing headaches, having learnt of the IRB plans for an armed uprising. At one war council, O’Connor said to those present: “Do you realise what this effort is going to cost in blood? But, if you decide on fighting, I am with you.”
At least, that is what he later told Nugent. It is unlikely, however, he would have been inducted into such a conspiracy if the others were not already certain of his commitment. Previous rebellions had been thwarted in no small part by their carelessness with information. This time, the Military Council would hide its secrets well – perhaps a little too much so.
The Castle Document
Among O’Connor’s responsibilities was the printing of the ‘Castle Document’ with the assistance of George Plunkett. The Military Council, including its de facto leader Tom Clarke, had met previously at Larkfield, in the bedroom of the sickly Joseph, to discuss the document, purportedly smuggled out of Dublin Castle by a sympathetic clerk, which detailed the authorities’ plans to move against the Irish Volunteers as well as a number of other suspect bodies in Ireland.
Its credibility would be a matter of controversy. Geraldine was sure it was genuine, but Colm Ó Lochlainn, its original printer before O’Connor and George took over, assumed it a forgery on account of it being in Joseph’s handwriting. Regardless of authenticity, printing the piece proved boring work. O’Connor and George sung together to get through the tedium, even resorting to God Save the King as well as the more expected fare such as The Croppy Boy and I Tread the Ground That Felons Tread. When halfway done, one of them knocked the ink over with an elbow and the work had to be started all over again.
More problems arose. When the finished product was sent out to the newspapers, none would accept it as real. Instead, O’Connor brought a copy to the New Ireland, a weekly newspaper with modest circulation, whose proprietor and editor was none other than Little. After acquiring it in February 1916, Little had assured O’Connor that he would publish anything if it served the cause of Ireland. He was as good as his word, though it was only when the ‘Castle Document’ was read out at the Dublin Corporation meeting on the 19th April 1916 that it finally achieved some proper publicity.
The intent behind it had been two-fold, as Geraldine explained: “Make the Castle hesitate to do the things they were accused of planning, and make the public realise what was planned whether there was a Rising or not.”
Last Minute Plans
‘Whether or not’ would become a pressing issue when, after months of preparation, the Irish Volunteers were confronted by the one thing the conspirators had failed to account for: dissension in their own ranks. Suspicious of the activities of the IRB, to which he was not affiliated, Eoin MacNeill, as Chief of Staff, had abruptly countermanded the parade for Easter Sunday that was to provide cover for the Rising, effectively putting the insurrection on hold.
If the IRB had assumed MacNeill would be a compliant figurehead, then they gravely misjudged him. Faced with this unexpected setback, Geraldine assumed that the event would be postponed for a week, possibly longer, until the swirl of rumours obscuring everything had been cleared. She had her own investment in it – she and Dillon were due to be married on Easter Sunday in a double wedding with Joseph and his own fiancé, Grace Gifford.
Geraldine and Dillon visited Joseph on Saturday in the Metropole Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, where he had checked in the day before, his luggage carried by Michael Collins as his aide-de-camp. Using his suite as a temporary base of operations, Joseph met with a succession of people until he could spare an hour for his sister and brother-in-law-to-be.
Joseph’s instructions to Dillon were to go to the Imperial Hotel on the same street and wait for news. In the event of activity, Dillon was to take over the chemical factory in Larkfield and set to work alongside O’Connor in making munitions. That is, if anything happened – Joseph was as unsure on that point as anyone since MacNeill’s intervention had thrown everything and everyone into disarray.
Joseph had no time to get married, but Geraldine and Dillon still could. With the Rising due either Sunday or Monday, at least as far as Geraldine understood, she insisted the ceremony be on the earlier date – with the world about to be upturned, she knew she had to carpe diem. Besides, she had had enough of living with her harridan of a mother and grasped at any chance to escape the suffocating confines of her family life.
The wedding was held accordingly in Rathmines Church, attended by George and Jack, both in the green uniform of the Irish Volunteers, with O’Connor, in civilian clothes, acting as best man. His duties included the ejection, helped by the Plunkett brothers, of two police detectives who tried to intrude.
Afterwards, the newly-weds cycled to the Imperial Hotel as per instruction. O’Connor came with the news that MacNeill’s countermand had been published in the Sunday Independent, making it definite. As far as O’Connor could say, the Rising was definitely off for the rest of Sunday but Monday remained an open question. Still, the new Mr and Mrs Dillon should remain on the alert, at least from noon the next day.
If anything was to happen, O’Connor told them, it would be then.
The couple were seated by their open second-storey window, looking out on to Sackville Street when the big question was finally answered by the column of uniformed Irish Volunteers marching towards the General Post Office (GPO), where they halted. As the Imperial Hotel stood directly opposite the GPO, the couple had a front-row view of the men wheeling left and continuing into the post office. Geraldine caught sight of Joseph, with Collins beside him, and a number of the other leaders, such as Patrick Pearse and Seán Mac Diarmada.
There was a bang and Geraldine saw someone being carried away on a stretcher. When O’Connor came by their room shortly afterwards, he explained that one of the Irish Volunteers had slipped when entering the GPO, setting off the bomb in his hand.
Other than that, the long-gestating Rising was unfolding smoothly enough. With the GPO established as their headquarters, Volunteers began bringing in supplies and smashing windows with rifle-butts to make room for barricades. Geraldine asked O’Connor to tell Joseph to let her help, but when he returned to the Hotel at 6 pm, the answer he brought back was ‘no’. The GPO was too crowded, O’Connor explained.
Instead, Joseph’s instructions were for her and Dillon to return to Larkfield with O’Connor and, if possible, manufacture some more explosives (Geraldine had already beheld the prowess of a Larkfield-made bomb when one was used to mangle an empty tramcar on Sackville Street for use in a barricade). To avoid British patrols on the way, it was agreed for O’Connor to take a different route to Geraldine and Dillon. He would try to reach his father’s residence in Monkstown, while the other two headed to Rathmines where the Plunketts owned another house, and the next day they would reconvene in Larkfield.
Night was falling and the street lights flickered on to guide the newly-weds as they cycled over O’Connell Bridge, encountering almost no one else along the way. The streets were devoid of people, whether civilians or military, and Geraldine could take satisfaction at least that the Rising, after all the effort and trouble to bring about, had taken everyone, the authorities especially, completely by surprise.
At Larkfield, the trio reunited as planned on Tuesday morning. O’Connor had first checked in at the GPO, and assured Geraldine and Dillon that Joseph was well. As the assigned chemical expert on the Plunkett staff, Dillon began making production plans as per Joseph’s orders, but O’Connor stopped him, saying that the situation had moved past that.
The Rising, it seemed, was not going as smoothly as hoped.
When Dillon wondered if it would be any use going to the GPO, O’Connor again demurred, repeating Joseph’s line that the building was packed enough as it was. For want of anything else to do, O’Connor decided he would take messages in and out of the GPO and other parts of the city, a risky endeavour considering the fighting that was about to be waged. It was while doing this that O’Connor, after narrowly avoiding a bullet to the head, met Cullen, who took him to Nugent’s shop in Baggot Street.
Something to Do
There, O’Connor did not mince words. “He told us the whole position and it was hopeless,” Nugent remembered.
As O’Connor explained, much of their ammunition had already been spent and the remainder would not last for more than a few days. Joseph Plunkett was confident that their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ would come to their rescue, having been to Germany beforehand and heard the promises of a military landing, but no one else in the GPO was putting much stock in this possibility.
O’Connor begged the two National Volunteers to do everything in their power to effect a ceasefire of some kind. The duo were as good as their word, as they gathered a small delegation of fellow officers to call on the Lord Mayor, Sir James Gallagher, on the Wednesday. With Cullen and Nugent were Major James Crean, the head of the National Volunteers, the Hon. Fitzroy Hemphill and Creed Meredith. None of these three were aware of Cullen and Nugent’s contacts with O’Connor or the Irish Volunteers.
Unfortunately, Gallagher proved less than helpful:
Our reception was anything but dignified. Both the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress gave us terrible abuse. Both expressed the hope that not a rebel would escape.
One by one we tried to reason with him that it was for the purpose of stopping the fight that we wished to intervene. He had been to the Castle and had consulted with the Army Authorities already.
After a long debate he said he would mention the matter. But he would not recommend any cessation of hostilities until the rebels were wiped out.
With this not-very-encouraging promise obtained from the Lord Mayor, for what it was worth, Nugent and Cullen left the other three to next try John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow and, more importantly, the Secretary of the National Volunteers. Through him, the pair hoped to induce John Redmond to exert his influence in Westminster for a truce. They were no more successful here:
Donovan was also very hostile and said that a telegram had been sent to him by Mr Redmond ordering him to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Military. The telegram had not been delivered and that was why he did not act. He could not act on a ‘phone message. We were sorry for this as we would have answered the call and used the arms and ammunition on our own way.
With little to show for their efforts, Cullen and Nugent returned to O’Connor, who had been mulling over options after talking with Pearse in the GPO. He asked the pair to contact the Dublin Fusiliers, one of the British regiments tasked with putting down the Rising, and offer £2 a man to defect, as per Pearse’s instructions.
Neither Cullen nor Nugent bothered asking O’Connor if he even had that sort of money – as the Fusiliers were based in Kilmainham, which was firmly in enemy hands, they had no chance of reaching them anyway. When Cullen offered the services of whatever National Volunteers he could muster, O’Connor declined.
“Send them home. We have no arms for them now,” he said, adding a trifle optimistically: “We will want them again.”
The End and the Start
O’Connor spent the rest of that fateful week passing messages in and out of the GPO – when he could. He was able to pass through British cordons by showing a letter to his father, a solicitor to the Land Commission, from Augustine Birrell, the Chief Secretary for Ireland, but even this proof of official connections had its limits, such as on the Thursday, when he found himself under fire while en route to the GPO and was forced to turn back.
The nonstop rattle of machine-guns had by then permeated the city, intercut by the boom of artillery. On Saturday, news filtered out that the rebel leaders had surrendered, cutting short the fight for Irish freedom. Those Volunteers who had not managed to slip away were held overnight on the wet grass of the Rotunda Gardens under searchlights and the curses of their British captors.
Still at large, O’Connor made further use of his father, getting him to write a letter to Dublin Castle, begging for intervention for George and Jack. Even if there was little chance of Joseph being spared execution, there might be hope for his brothers. He was on his way to deliver the letter when a bullet from a sniper, still holding out in the Royal College of Surgeons, ricocheted off a metal box on the corner of Grafton Street. O’Connor had had a close call before, but this time he was not so lucky, being hit in the leg.
So stricken, O’Connor was admitted to Mercer’s Hospital under an assumed name. Nonetheless, some of the nurses guessed he was one of the rebels on account of the holy medal in his pocket, a gift from Fiona Plunkett, Joseph’s sister, with whom he had an off-and-on relationship. Concerned that the nurses – who made plain their views on the Rising by telling O’Connor that he ought to be shot – would give away the identity of his patient, the doctor had him moved to a nursing home in Leeson Street.
He stayed there for three weeks until his brother Norbett found him. Another visitor while he was recuperating was Cullen, to whom O’Connor had sent word through one of the friendlier nurses. There was much for them to talk about, after all.
As Nugent put it:
For Rory O’Connor, Capt. T.J. Cullen, myself and the men who had already started organising again, the war was still on. Rory mentioned that it did not stop at any time, and while he and those who were prepared to work with him did so it would continue to carry on in various ways.
“All changed, changed utterly,” wrote Y.B. Yeats on the Rising but, for O’Connor, it was merely business as usual.
O’Connor had never been particularly important before the Rising, instead serving as an aide to those who were, such as Joseph Plunkett. But now, as one of the few leaders of the Irish Volunteers alive and at liberty, he was ideally placed to help shape events. For, though the Rising had been a military disaster, its aftermath provided a crop of opportunities to be harvested.
Patrick Little was one of his allies in this venture. If before Little had been dipping his toe in radical politics, now he threw himself in wholeheartedly, having had his offices in Eustace Street, where he did his work as a solicitor, trashed by British soldiers during Easter Week. When a rifle was found on the premises, the soldiers dragged out the son of the caretaker into the narrow lane at the back of the building, where they shot him.
The boy had been with the Irish Volunteers but, confused by the contradictory orders over mobilisation, he had decided to stay at home with his family. When H. H. Asquith visited Dublin three weeks after the Rising, Little made sure to avoid contact as the Prime Minister passed by Eustace Street.
As editor of New Ireland, Little had a platform to use, and in O’Connor he had a teacher in the new way of thinking. The two would lunch together in Bewley’s on Westmoreland Street, and Little attributed much of the content of his writings from that time to these conversations. Not only Little but the country as a whole was revaluating its stance on the National Question. When the pair travelled together to South Longford for the by-election in May 1917, even they were taken aback by the fervour of the crowds who responded at the sight of a tricolour with hearty cheers of “Up the Republic!”
“This was a time when public opinion was very confused and in a very transient condition,” Little remembered. “Many Unionists were prepared to accept Home Rule, and moderate national opinion, which represented the majority of people – and included the former supporters of Redmond – were becoming strongly Republican.”
Sinn Féin Rising
Among the beneficiaries of this shifting mood was Arthur Griffith. The ‘Sinn Féin Rebellion’, the British state had called the Rising but, in truth, Griffith and his talking-shop of a group had had naught to do with it. Which did not stop Sinn Féin from basking in the appropriated glow of Easter Week when the public mood turned in its favour. Nor was Griffith in any particular hurry to correct the misnaming. Nationalist Ireland had been dominated for years by the IPP but now, as trust in Redmond and his Home Rule agenda plummeted, Sinn Féin was poised to step in with a promise of its own.
“As Ireland became pro-insurrection she became Sinn Féin, without knowing what Sinn Féin was,” was how one contemporary described the phenomenon, “except that it stood generally for Irish independence in the old complete way, the way in which the Irish Party had not stood for it.”
Opportunity presented itself in North Roscommon at the start of the new year, when the sitting Member of Parliament (MP) died in January 1917, and Count George Plunkett was the Sinn Féin selection for the resulting by-election. If the Rising had been a family affair for the Plunketts, then so was the subsequent political movement, as the Count was the father of Joseph Plunkett, and O’Connor, serving as the candidate’s unofficial aide, was his son-in-law in a way, given his romantic involvement with Fiona Plunkett.
When Nugent arrived in Roscommon, he found the contested consistency gripped in the chill of winter, and a threadbare campaign. The local Sinn Féin circles had not even been aware he was coming, so poor was the communication between them and Dublin. Nugent had been sent by O’Connor to help with the canvassing, but the only thing O’Connor had given him was advice, and that amounted to no more than ‘do what you think is right’.
Neither he nor Nugent had any experience in electioneering, or in public speaking in the case of the latter, but the handful of Sinn Féin activists who greeted him at Dromod Station, Co. Leitrim, just outside Roscommon, insisted he speak after Mass the next morning, the opening day of the campaign. Despite his doubts, as he stood in one foot of snow on the platform, Nugent did not feel he could refuse.
Nugent was set to speak at Rooskey, Co. Roscommon, after Thomas Smyth, the Irish Party MP for Leitrim South. The two foes were driven to the church by the local priest, Father Lavin, who was keen to stay on friendly terms with both sides. After being introduced by Lavin in the church, Smyth delivered his pience, only to be received in stony silence by the congregation. Nugent then rose without waiting for an invitation and mounted the steps to the chancel for his turn.
The Election of the Snows
Afterwards, Nugent would not be able to remember what he said, only that, according to others who were present, they were “very strong things”. When Smyth tried to interrupt, he was quickly shushed. Nugent could read the writing on the wall: “As far as the election in this district was concerned, the Count had won there that first Sunday morning of the campaign.”
Things went even worse for Smyth later that day. He was so angry that he refused to let Nugent come with him and Father Lavan in the car to Slatta Chapel, where the two representatives were due to appear next.
“Smith [sic] could have saved himself the journey,” Nugent gloated, as the MP’s vehicle became stuck in the snow, forcing him and the priest to walk to Slatta Chapel, which Nugent had already reached by horse and trap. “My meeting was over before he arrived and it was most enthusiastic.”
Rubbing salt further into the wound, when Smyth finally had the chance to address the crowd, he was barred from doing so.
The times, they were a-changing, a point underlined when the votes from polling day were counted in the Roscommon Courthouse. Nugent drove back to Dublin, reaching his house in Dundrum to find it full of Sinn Féin supporters, including Margaret and Margaret Mary Pearse, the mother and sister respectively of the 1916 martyr. Though Margaret Pearse said she would be content with a win by as much as a single vote, even she found Nugent’s announcement of a landslide victory by Count Plunkett hard to take in.
When news of the result and its scale was published in the evening papers, the country understood that a great statement had been made – what that message was, however, would take some deciphering.
“When people say that this was not a Republican election, they say wrong,” Nugent would later write. “The principles of the men of Easter Week were shouted from every platform. From the crowds attending these meetings came the cries of ‘Up Dublin’.”
That he felt the need to clarify the issue was a sign in itself. It was not even clear if Count Plunkett intended to take his newly-won seat at Westminster, as some wanted, or if he would abstain on Republican principles, as per his declaration. And so O’Connor, acting as Plunkett’s unofficial director of operations, dispatched Nugent back to Roscommon to gauge local opinion on the question.
He returned with the answer that the electorate was not only fully in agreement with its MP but would return him with an even greater majority in the event of another election. When the Count confirmed that he would indeed not be taking his seat, there was, according to Nugent, “consternation in the ranks of Sinn Féin.”
It was clear that, despite their points of ideological overlap, there was at least as many differences between Sinn Féin and the burgeoning Republican movement, embodied in the Irish Volunteers, the IRB and behind-the-scenes operatives like O’Connor. “Rory O’Connor and the people working with him had different ideas from the Sinn Féin party,” was how Nugent put it.
‘Politicians’, a term loaded with contempt in the mouths of Nugent and other Republicans, included their Sinn Féin partners as much as the Redmondite old guard:
The politicians were different from the Volunteers. They saw no hope of recovery on Republican lines. They were preparing to go back to their old political policy of action. Passive resistance was their programme.
When Count Plunkett announced at a rally in Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, that the Irish Volunteers would be reformed and organised, this was exactly in line with O’Connor’s agenda, which most certainly did not include ‘passive resistance’. For there was a new battle to be waged, one not limited to Dublin and a few other scattered districts as Easter Week had been.
It would be nationwide.
It would be a Rising worthy of the name.
O’Connor’s statement on Easter Tuesday – “Send them home. We shall want them again” – now took on a different, more prophetic, meaning.
“But the politicians were troublesome,” Nugent noted with a sigh. “They did not countenance another fight.”
However annoying politicians might be, politics was not something that could be ignored. O’Connor had by then appointed himself secretary to Count Plunkett who, having scored his major win in North Roscommon, did not seem inclined to do anything with it. O’Connor would have to enter the Plunkett family residence in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street early enough to find all the mail dealing with the new movement before the absent-minded Count could put the letters in his pocket and forget about them.
As Ireland reassessed where it stood on the National Question, Sinn Féin was undergoing some restructuring of its own. After the North Roscommon by-election, Griffith increased the Executive with a few extra faces but, otherwise, “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive members. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.”
Lennon was uncomfortably aware that Count Plunkett and his Republican-minded followers were forming a party of their own, one with which “it was difficult to work in harmony. Many of these then Republicans treated Mr Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion.” Griffith may have had name recognition, being “probably the best-known man out of gaol,” but what his opponents lacked in numbers, they made up for in pushiness.
A meeting held in the Mansion House, dubbed the ‘Plunkett Convention’, on the 19th April 1917, was meant to unite the radicals of Ireland. Instead, it resulted in an undignified scramble between Giffith’s and Plunkett’s followers, one which Lennon cringed to remember:
The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.
After the Convention had ended, Griffith withdrew to his offices at 6 Harcourt Street. He was sitting in the front drawing-room with Lennon and a few other confidantes when:
Suddenly the door was thrown open and a man of splendid physique entered, followed by a frail figure. It was Michael Collins, accompanied by Rory O’Connor. This was the first time I ever saw the former. His entrance was characteristic of his manner at that period.
Looking around, rather truculently, his eyes rested on Mr Griffith, and he asked in a loud voice: “I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on.”
Griffith appeared rather more interested in the cigarette he was smoking. The by-election in South Longford was the second such contest of the year, one in which Sinn Féin and Plunkett’s faction were eager to replicate the success of North Roscommon – on whose terms, however, had yet to be decided.
“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket you will alienate all the young men,” Collins thundered to the room. By ‘young men’, he meant the Irish Volunteers. Even if not meant as a threat, it was hard not to take it as one.
‘A Great Silent Worker’
To Lennon, this was the first time he had heard the Republic being pushed as official policy, a sign of how divergent he and the others in Sinn Féin were from Collins, O’Connor and the other ‘young men’. The discussion – or argument, rather – warred on until, tiring of it, Collins and O’Connor withdrew to count the donations from the convention, the question put aside but most certainly not forgotten.
It was noticeable that Collins had been doing the talking while O’Connor remained silent; ‘fragile’, perhaps, but no less of a presence – or influence. “Rory O’Connor was not a politician or a parade man,” so Nugent described him. “He was a great silent worker and, consequently, he was not as well known to the rank and file of the army as were most of the other leaders.”
That the Plunkett Convention had happened at all was due to O’Connor. Dillon believed he had taken on the role of its secretary because no one else was doing it The invitation to the event, issued in the name of Count Plunkett, had been met with many a hostile reception, at least according to the Freeman’s Journal. Which was unsurprising, this being the organ of the IPP, but O’Connor would read almost every daily edition, specifically looking for the names of the one or two members in the various county or district councils who did not condemn the invitation, even when the rest voted to reject it.
To each of these dissenters, O’Connor would dispatch a letter, saying:
I see by the paper that you are the only person in ____ who represents the true opinions of the people and therefore send you a card of invitation to the convention.
“In this way,” Dillon described, “a very large attendance at the [Plunkett] Convention from all over the country was secured and tickets left over were given to Dublin supporters, so that when the day came the Round Room was full.”
For his part, Dillon had drawn up the agenda, with a number of resolutions to be passed. He did this at O’Connor’s request since Count Plunkett, after signing his name to the invites, assumed that all he had to do was address the attendees and leave it at that. Without O’Connor intervening with a workable agenda, the event might still have been an embarrassing flop. Instead, the Plunkett Convention was the first large-scale meeting in a movement that would upheave the political status quo.
And yet, despite all his work, O’Connor “never appeared on the scene. He was almost unknown,” according to Nugent, which was apparently the way he liked it. Even with the culmination of Sinn Fein’s political ascent, the Dáil Éireann, Geraldine Dillon knew of her friend’s involvement only as the one who escorted her and Fiona Plunkett to its inauguration, on the 21st January 1919, at the Mansion House.
On that same day, two policemen were shot dead at Soloheadbeg, Co. Tipperary, in the opening volley of what would become variously known as the War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish War or the Tan War; throughout which, O’Connor was to remain in the shadows, an obscure figure to the wider public despite the leading role he played.
When a reporter from the Derry Journal met O’Connor in April 1922, finding him to be a “serious, ascetic and somewhat cadaverous-looking man”, it was noted that, despite his involvement in the Republican movement since 1916, no one had heard of him until the recent Treaty split.
John Morley was a worried man despite his recent elevation. He had just been appointed as Irish Chief Secretary, a role he was regarding with considerable dubiety. This he sought to assuage by a talk, on the 17th October 1892, with a man who had his ear to the ground of that troubled – and, from the point of view of many in the British Government, troublesome – quarter of the United Kingdom.
John Redmond was only too keen to respond to Morley’s urgent invitation and got straight to the point: “How do you regard the prospects of this winter?”
Not good, the Chief Secretary-to-be admitted. “If I can’t rule Ireland this winter with success, it means destruction.”
While Morley dismissed rumours of secret societies, he was all too aware of how politics on that island were of a tempestuous sort, fully capable of wrecking any public career – such as his – on its rocks. With that in mind, he was equally direct with Redmond: “Can you give me any hope on this point?”
Redmond could, while leaving the onus on Morley. “It depends on yourself,” he replied. “If you are thorough, you can disarm hostility. In the first place, release the prisoners.”
“Do you mean the Dynamiters?” Morley asked, referring to the Fenian bombing campaign in England. While the minutes of this conversation do not convey tone, it is clear that Morley was hesitant about such a step but it was something Redmond felt strongly about, particularly if the other man wanted a quiet winter. “Amnesty – Amnesty – Amnesty!” he stressed, in case Morley missed it the first time.
As the conversation passed through a number of other topics, Morley expressed incredulity on one in particular while, in doing so, exposing the depths of his naivety:
Morley: Do you really want Home Rule?
Redmond: Certainly – genuine Home Rule.
Morley: Then don’t destroy our chances of giving it to you.
Redmond would show just how much he wanted Home Rule – of the genuine sort – by refusing to sit idly by for it to be granted. But it was not enough and the subsequent generation was to push him and his Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) aside, impatient to take rather than wait. All political careers may end in failure, but Redmond’s failed harder than most, leaving not so much a legacy as an embarrassment.
“The caricature of Redmond that has come down to us from the Sinn Féin-permeated political culture,” as historian Dermot Meleady puts it, has him as:
…out of touch with the Irish people and Irish culture, too much time spent in London, too trusting of British politicians, his tendency to ‘compliance’ where Parnell had embodied ‘defiance’.
The reader is invited to judge the truth of this image for themselves from this selection of correspondence, stretching four decades, from 1880, when Redmond first entered the political game, to his final year of 1918:
The letters in general are courteously businesslike in style and content, conveying in their neatness of handwriting and conciseness of style, a strong impression of self-discipline. Little emotion is revealed.
This stoicism served Redmond well during his tenure as IPP Chairman, buffeted as he was by one squall after another. No sooner had he been elected leader in 1900, in a move to bind the wounds of the Parnell Split, then he was faced with another feud that threatened to undo all the work of reuniting the Irish Party, this time between the prima donnas: William O’Brien and Timothy Healy.
“The only thing on which I am quite clear and which for me will involve the question of my membership of the Party,” O’Brien wrote to Redmond in November 1900, “is that the Convention ought specifically to direct Healy’s exclusion from the Party.”
O’Brien had his way in that regard, and the IPP began the following year by re-entering the Land Struggle as they agitated for land purchases, alongside the tactics of intimidation and boycotts, while staying short of violence. It was a delicate balance, and O’Brien’s push for an escalation alarmed Redmond, as it did his deputy, John Dillon.
This led to a three-way exchange of letters, as Redmond and Dillon strove to reign in their headstrong colleague. “I am…in complete agreement with you in thinking there is need at this moment for renewed activity,” Redmond told O’Brien soothingly. “What I differ from you is as to the means.”
Which was exactly Redmond’s style: calm, measured, in polite disagreement if need be while giving every impression that he was otherwise on your side. The emergence of the Irish Volunteers in 1913, a consequence of the Home Rule Crisis, put his powers of diplomacy to the test.
“I can assure you I am extremely anxious that we should come to some understanding,” he wrote to Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the armed new movement, on the issue of IPP personnel on its ruling body. It was a question of control, something which MacNeill was reluctant to surrender, but Redmond was nothing if not persistent.
“Why this moderate demand of ours was not conceded at once, I cannot understand,” he told MacNeill, rather passive-aggressively. “The present Committee [of the Irish Volunteers] is purely provisional, self-elected and includes no representative of the Irish Party.”
Between themselves, the IPP leaders were not overly impressed with their new rival. “My interview with MacNeill left me the impression that he is extremely muddle-headed,” complained Dillon. MacNeill showed some of his strain in a reply to Redmond: “I am sorry that I have not been able to make the position clear to you.”
When the tenuous peace between the political and the paramilitary cracked with the Volunteer split in September 1914, and the majority sided with the IPP, Redmond indulged in some uncharacteristic ‘tough talk’. The remnants of the Volunteers who had stayed with MacNeill’s faction were “to be fought vigorously and remorselessly by us, who believe in the constitutional movement and in Home Rule as a settlement of the Irish question.”
At the end, the Irish question would be settled, vigorously and remorselessly, by a very different set of tactics. When the Easter Rising of 1916 broke out, Redmond was in London, cut off from the rapid turn of events, while Dillon did his best to relay news to his Chairman from the warzone.
“Dublin is full of the most extraordinary rumours,” he wrote on the Easter Sunday, the 23rd April. “What it is I cannot make out.”
By Wednesday, Dillon had made out a little more, if barely. “The situation here is terrible,” he lamented. “We are in absolute ignorance of what has been going on, beyond the fact that fierce fighting has been in progress in many parts of the city.”
While always engaging, the book turns particularly gripping from here, as the IPP struggled to come to terms with an Ireland that had been turned on its head by the end of the six days over Easter Week. Dillon provided the voice of reason, warning Redmond that the resulting executions would be a PR disaster, both for the British Government and themselves.
In that, he was entirely correct. The correspondence from then on presents a picture of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ as the constitutional cause was rejected by the voters, first in a quartet of by-elections in 1917, and then in the 1918 General Election, in which the Irish Parliamentary Party was wiped off the political map.
Its erstwhile Chairman was dead by then, the victim of a heart attack in March 1918. “What a terrible thing that poor Redmond should be taken from his people just at this time,” T.P. O’Connor wrote as he commiserated with Dillon. “However, personally, I think that the inability of his heart to respond was not due to any other cause than that it was broken.”
Eagle-eyed readers with a keen memory will recall how, earlier in the book and the year 1895, Redmond had received a report assessing the state of the ‘Dynamiters’ held in Portland Prison, the same men on whose behalf he had lobbied John Morley. That Redmond wrote out the findings showed his abiding interest.
Health-wise, the inmates were a mixed bag. Duff – “Insane”, Dalton – “Sound in mind and body”, McDermot – “Ditto.” One in particular showed “symptoms of valvular disease” and indigestion but otherwise was also of “sound mind.” That mind belonged to a certain Tom Clarke, who went on to overturn everything his benefactor had been working on with the Easter Rising, twenty-one years later.
If history goes in cycles, then nowhere is that truer than of the Irish variety, where today’s heroes could become tomorrow’s failures, and the prisoners of now end up shaping the future; just one of the many lessons this book can provide.
“If you or anybody else expect that I’m going to waste my time talking ‘bosh’ to the crowds,” James Connolly was heard to say, “for the sake of hearing shouts, you’ll be sadly disappointed.” He preferred instead to “give my message to four serious men at any crossroads in Ireland and know that they carry it back to the places they came from.”
This would prove to be more than just ‘bosh’ on Connolly’s part. A stiffening of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA) was noted in October 1914, upon his assumption of its leadership, with the announcement of a mandatory parade for all members. Rifles were to be “thoroughly cleaned”, anyone absent would be noted and latecomers refused admittance.
Meanwhile, articles by Connolly started to appear in the Workers’ Republic, critiquing the tactics deployed by past uprisings, such as Paris in 1848 and its use of barricades in an urban environment a particular point of interest. “The general principle to be deducted from a study of the example we have been dealing with,” Connolly wrote in July 1915:
…is that the defence is of almost overwhelming importance in such warfare as a popular force like the Citizen Amy might be called upon to participate in. Not a mere passive defence of a position valueless in itself, but the active defence of a position whose location threatens the supremacy or the existence of the enemy.
Less than a year later, in April 1916, these lessons would be applied in Moore Street and the Royal College of Surgeons as part of the Easter Rising in Dublin.
It had been an event long in gestation. It was also quite a departure from the starting goal of the ICA, when it was formed in response to the police brutality against strikers on the Bloody Sunday of 1913. Three months afterwards, in November, Jim Larkin publicly “spoke of the need for a disciplined force to protect the workers and signified his intention of forming a citizen army,” according to one of his audience.
There were, however, clues that more ambitious plans were afoot for the citizen army in question rather than self-defence. An article in the Irish Times had Connolly proclaim that the new body was “for victory, for the freedom of their country, and his and their grand ideal of a self-centred and a self-governing Ireland [as] a republic among the nations.” Even then, he had the big picture in mind.
In contrast, Jack White, the first Chairman of the ICA, had no such ambitions for any kind of upheaval, whether social or national. Despite his position of command within a paramilitary body, he was ambivalent about the use of force. “In moments I saw the clear revolutionary principle,” White wrote, “at others I was repelled by the bitterness of a philosophy fighting against the whole establishment order.”
The challenge of reconciling these competing strands of thought underpins much of the early chapters of the book. It is also indicative of Leddin’s style, which tends to be heavy on the political and less so on the personal. In any case, the withdrawal of Larkin and White from the scene, the former to America and the latter in favour of a position in the Irish Volunteers, left Connolly as the sole guiding hand of the ICA. Ireland in general was undergoing a radicalisation, with the forming of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) to resist Home Rule, and Connolly looked forward to the time when the ICA could put the recalcitrant Ulstermen in their place.
“When King [Edward] Carson comes along here we will be able to line our own ditches,” he boasted on the day of the ICA’s birth. This is not to say, Leddin writes, “that Connolly was contemplating the events of Easter 1916 but that the possibility of using the Citizen Army as a national weapon had already occurred to him.”
As far as Connolly was concerned, it was not a case of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the ICA would become involved in the wider struggle. Others appreciated the sentiment: Patrick Pearse greeted the transport union men, marked out by their red hand badges, at the Bodenstown Wolfe Tone commemoration in June 1913, telling those present that there were “no strangers here.”
From here, Leddin focuses on the growing rapport between the ICA and the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the sort of ‘serious men at any crossroads’ who Connolly had in mind, and who shared his impatience for an armed uprising against the status quo. There were bumps on the road, however: the presence of Laurence Kettle as Secretary at the forming of the Irish Volunteers in November 1913 was met with heckles from Labour men who objected to the presence of a known strike-breaker on the Provisional Committee.
The leadership of the Irish Volunteers as it stood was too broad in its demographics to be naturally inclined to revolution. The IRB consisted of only eleven members of the thirty-strong Committee, with the rest, if they were political at all, being from constitutionally or conservatively-minded groups like the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The indifference of the IPP towards the Lockout of 1913 meant that many in Labour regarded the Parliamentary Party as just as another enemy in the class war.
Labour did not play much better with others. “Larkin’s people for some time past have been making war on the Irish Volunteers,” complained Tom Clarke in a letter in May 1914, “they have antagonised the sympathy of all sections of the country and none more so than the advanced section.” He concluded with: “Liberty Hall is now a negligible quality.”
What a change, then, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April 1916, when Connolly and Pearse marched together at the heads of their respective armies from Liberty Hall, along Eden Quay and down Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, to take up headquarters in the General Post Office and thus begin the Rising that the latter had long contemplated – and now had the chance to put his research to the test.
It was the start of six days that would shake an empire but, even at that climaxing moment, there were uncertainties as to where the ICA exactly stood in regard to its comrades-in-arms. “You are going out to fight, not as the Irish Citizen Army, but as soldiers of the Irish Republic,” Connolly told his followers on the eve of battle.
It was a nice idea, one which others agreed with. “The Citizen Army ceased to exist on Monday of Easter Week,” recalled one participant, while for another: “When the joint forces were brought together on Easter Sunday there was no distinction between the Volunteers and the Citizen Army.”
Not all subscribed to this theory of neat and tidy assimilation, however. “While they [the ICA] may have shelved their identity, they never really lost it,” insisted another witness. Even Connolly appeared to have had suspicions, or at least reservations, about the extent of the alliance, as he advised his subordinates – in the same breath that he extolled them to fight alongside the Volunteers – to keep a hand on their guns, lest today’s friends become tomorrow’s foes.
Not that we will ever know what would have resulted in the event of a rebel win, though Leddin does not consider the likelihood of such a civil war as very likely. But it is also true that the ICA and the Volunteers, for all their ideological overlap, came together – to steal a later quote from Henry Kissinger – like porcupines making love: carefully. When Connolly went missing on the 19th January 1916, Michael Mallin, Countess Markievicz and William O’Brien, as the de facto troika for the ICA in their leader’s absence, prepared to kick-start their insurrection in Dublin early, with or without anyone else.
Only a request from the IRB, and then Connolly’s reappearance three days later on the 22nd, stayed their hand. Whether he had been brought willingly to the IRB meeting – the one where he was inducted into its military council and thus became privy to its plans – or was kidnaped is a matter of some debate, but it is noteworthy that the rest of the ICA initially assumed the worst.
Post-Rising, the ICA found itself on the sidelines as the Irish Volunteers, later the Irish Republican Army (IRA), dominated the subsequent struggle. Despite a short-lived attempt to expand into Cork, the ICA was always limited to Dublin and so could never match the breadth of the other force.
Though Labour provided assistance during the War of Independence and then the Civil War, and relations with the IRA remained amicable, “none of the ICA’s skirmishes were significant to the wider republican struggle,” writes Leddin. Easter Week was thus the only time the Army of Labour approached the status of a Hercules, after which it shrank to a pygmy’s.
Still, its example lived on. The Starry Plough that the ICA had borne on its flag became part of the iconography painted on Nationalist murals, alongside the Easter lily and phoenix, during the Troubles and afterwards. Indeed:
An Institute of Irish Studies survey on the display of public emblems in Northern Ireland found that in the months of September and October, from 2006 to 2009, the starry plough was the most likely republican or unionist paramilitary symbol to be on display in Northern Ireland.
Today’s political groups prove as eager as armed ones to claim the mantle. For Labour leader Joan Burton, a granddaughter of an ICA member, Connolly’s “core vision was one of equality” which just happened to be “a vision the Labour Party had sought to fulfil from its foundation.” In contrast, Gerry Adams emphasised on behalf of Sinn Féin the anti-Imperial and anti-Partition stances of the 1916 leaders while, to Paul Murphy of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, Connolly’s importance lay in his internationalist, rather than merely nationalist, viewpoint.
If the Irish Citizen Army, then, is a question with multiple, competing answers, then this book should provide readers with plenty of material to help make up their own minds.