A Clenched Fist Open: The Flying Column of the Athlone Brigade, 1920-1

Another Day in Ireland

While it was still dark on the morning of 18th October 1920, a patrol of British soldiers helped themselves to a motorboat in Athlone for use on the Shannon, their aim being to scout out some small islands upriver in Lough Ree. That they felt the need to bring along a Lewis machine gun would indicate a sense of wariness.

After all, the area had been increasingly unsettled over the course of the year, with a number of police barracks burnt to the ground and a police sergeant shot dead on the streets of Athlone. But then, these barracks had already been abandoned and the sergeant was caught while leaving a social club with barely any company to protect him. At twelve-strong and fully armed, the patrol would present a very different prospect.

Lough Ree

After finding nothing of note, the patrol began to make its way back around midday. As the boat passed through the narrows of the river, it was subjected to a broadside of bullets. Caught off-guard, the patrol stopped the motor and returned fire at the treeline along the shore where the attack was coming from. The Lewis was brought out to add to the fusillade but poor positioning – the boat was low in the water and the enemy standing on the high ground of the riverbanks – meant that its volleys went over the heads of its targets.

Upping the Ante

Exposed as they were and taking hits, the patrol had no choice but to restart their boat and withdraw as best they could. The ambushers followed along the bank, moving from cover to cover and keeping up their fire with a mix of shotguns and rifles. It was only when the boat neared Athlone with its still-functioning barracks there that the assailants broke off their attack and dispersed. The patrol limped back to safety with six wounded.

The attack had been an ad hoc affair by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The O/C of the Athlone Brigade, Seumas O’Meara, was in town to attend Mass when he heard about the soldiers who had left on a boat earlier that day. Recognising an opportunity, O’Meara gathered all the available Volunteers in Athlone and the Coosan area, near where the patrol had gone.

He had considered stringing barbed wire across the river but decided that the party lacked both a boat and the time necessary to attempt this. Hoping for as many casualties as possible, O’Meara told the others to aim for the waterline of the enemy launch before targeting the sinking men.

Despite the injuries inflicted, the Shannon ambush was not considered an unqualified success. O’Meara regretted the order to aim for the boat, believing it had wasted time that could have been spent on the soldiers. Another participant, Frank O’Connor, was of like mind, adding later in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement that he had thought O’Meara’s instructions absurd, though it seems he had neglected to actually mention it at the time.[1]

Seumas O’Meara

O’Meara’s leadership would remain a contentious issue. While undoubtedly brave, energetic and capable of creative thinking (as his idea with the barbed wire had shown), he had already exhibited a knack at rubbing his colleagues up the wrong way.


In early 1918, O’Meara was standing in as acting O/C of the Athlone Brigade while the official one was imprisoned when he was called upon to reprimand a pair of officers who had taken it upon themselves to arrange an unauthorised raid upon a quarry for gelignite. Other than the lack of discipline, the operation had involved rowing across a lake in bad weather, putting the lives of all involved at risk.

O’Meara made it clear that any future actions would have to be cleared beforehand by the Brigade staff. Smarting from the rebuke, the two malcontents took their complaints to the official O/C, Seán Hurley, upon his release from prison.

The first O’Meara knew of the problem was when Hurley addressed the Athlone Volunteers on parade. Without mentioning any name, Hurley made it clear that he held his acting O/C in the wrong. Feeling he had no choice, O’Meara tendered his resignation. But when the subsequent brigade staff meeting decided in favour of O’Meara, it was Hurley who resigned, leaving O’Meara to become O/C in time.[2]

It would not, however, be the last time that the discipline that O’Meara so highly valued would be come under threat.

At War and on the Run

The Shannon ambush heralded a rise in activity by the Athlone Brigade in the latter half of 1920. As part of this, a flying column was created to help spearhead this surge. Though the column would not take the field until after the Shannon ambush, plans for it had been underway for some time, encouraged in no small part by the increasing number of Volunteers having to go on the run.

British soldiers, Ireland

A series of round-ups by Crown forces were disrupting the equilibrium of the Brigade areas. The wanted men who escaped arrest were threatening to be a burden on the Brigade – O’Meara had to hold a collection to raise funds for them – until a GHQ missive in September, ordering columns to be formed in all brigade areas throughout the country, turned these loose men into resources. The runaways made perfect recruits for the column, having little else to do. Included were those Volunteers willing to be absent from their home for the foreseeable future.

The first meeting of the embryonic column was held at O’Meara’s house in October where the personnel were selected. The initial numbers are uncertain, one source having the column at twenty, but others coming to more conservative estimations of between nine and twelve.[3]

IRA Flying Column

All the rifles and the best shotguns were scoured from the Brigade units to equip the new one, something that was not greeted with wild enthusiasm by those outside the column. The Drumraney Company was sufficiently aggrieved to send their O/C to Dublin. There he prevailed upon GHQ to order the Brigade to return the Company armaments although only four rifles ended up being given back.[4]

Henry O’Brien – one of the column’s original members and later a stern critic – went as far as to argue that the donations of serviceable weapons to the column was crippling to the other units, which is something of an overstatement. After all, Athlone Volunteers outside the column were able to attempt a number of ambushes, successfully or otherwise, up until the Truce. However annoying this tithe of weapons might have been, it could not have been too much of one.[5]

Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians?

Also chosen was the O/C for the column. James Tormey was to be in command, a role for which he was ideally suited. In addition to having a “fine physique and of a commanding disposition”, he was one of the few Volunteers with prior military experience, having served with the British Army in France and at Gallipoli.

He had proven his mettle to his new comrades in the IRA: attempting to infiltrate the Streamstown RIC Barracks while disguised as a policeman (where he had narrowly avoided being shot) in July 1920, and acting as one of the shooters in the assassination of Sergeant Craddock in Athlone a month later.[6]

O’Meara served in the column as an ordinary soldier despite his position of Brigade O/C. Several others who held similar Brigade ranks likewise counted as regular Volunteers in the column while retaining the right to absent themselves and attend to their brigade duties when necessary. This dual membership policy would allow for the smooth running of the various IRA companies but it could create its own problems.[7]

O’Brien believed that being allowed to continue as officers made a lot of column members difficult to handle. A tendency for some to disappear without prior warning made unit cohesion a struggle to maintain and, being big fish in their own ponds, they were not as amenable to discipline as an ordinary Volunteer might be.

IRA members

O’Brien was also sceptical about the endurance of many of his peers when faced with the hardships that life in the column would entail, such as long periods of hunger and poor billeting. As Captain of the Coosan Company as well as a column serviceman, O’Brien could claim to view the situation from both perspectives; nonetheless, that was the situation the column had set for itself. There was nothing else to do but press on and do what the column had been formed to do.[8]

Opening Moves

British soldiers

The first intended operation was a surprise on a military party on its way to relieve the guards at the Athlone Workhouse. A date was set for a Monday but then the Shannon incident happened on the Sunday, heightening British security and causing the cancellation of the original plan.

Needing to stay mobile, the column assembled at Faheran on the following Tuesday and Wednesday nights, billeting in a shed owned by an obliging parish priest. Looking for another angle, Tormey, O’Meara and David Daly ventured out on the Thursday or Friday and scoped the Dublin-Athlone road as a possible ambush site before deciding on Parkwood as having the best position.

The armoury was reviewed in preparation. Upon testing, the GHQ-supplied explosives were found to be duds. Daly was sent to Dublin to replace them. Though he successfully handed in the faulty explosives he received no replacements, not that he would have made it back in time anyway for what was to be the column’s christening.[9]


The column’s ambition was modest: a single lorry, two at most. As British forces routinely used the road, it would only be a matter of time and patience before suitable prey came within range if the column waited long enough in position.

The column took up position close to the road, putting the men at virtually point-blank range as a concession to the inexperience of many of them, with the exception of a few ex-British soldiers like Tormey, at handling rifles. The bulk of the group was concentrated on one side of the road with the remainder positioned on the other to counteract any enemies seeking refuge there.

The position gave the column a clear view of the road towards Athlone. As for the Dublin side, a scout took watch with a whistle and instructions to use it upon sight of a convoy. Blocking the road was ruled out due to the amount of traffic and the lack of a mine. It was not ideal terrain as cover was scarce but, committed as they were, the column settled down as best they could behind roadside fences and waited.

When opportunity came at about 1 pm after two hours of anticipation, on 22nd October, the column almost missed it. A military tender speeded by from the Dublin direction before the ambushers were aware of it. The scout blew his whistle in time for a second tender to appear before the poised men.

The column opened fire, aiming as ordered on the lorry driver and killing 26-year old Constable Harold Briggs instantly at the wheel. The tender careered off the road and into a ditch in front of the ambushers, just as several other vehicles appeared, coming to a halt by the rear of the disabled one. Their occupants spilled out, the Black-and-Tans firing mostly in the air as they dashed for the nearest cover. Instead of the lone or double tenders the column had been expecting, they had chanced upon a whole squadron.


He Who Runs Away…

Fearing they had bitten off more than they could chew, Tormey ordered a retreat. The column moved safely away until they reached another road where they commandeered a civilian lorry. The locals they passed working on the land either cheered as the lorry passed or turned their backs, the latter O’Meara attributed to the farmers thinking they were Tans.

The column dismounted and sheltered in the woods. While the men waited for the cover of night, O’Meara went ahead to make arrangements for transport across the Shannon, all the better to throw any pursuers off the scent.

In what could have been a disaster, the column had pulled off its first ambush. With one enemy fatality, another injury and no casualties of their own, it had been a success. The reaction of the Tans, in contrast, had been so confused and their discipline so abyssal that many of the column believed that had they stayed to fight, they could have wiped the convoy out entirely like ducks in a row.

On the other hand, these same Volunteers were honest enough to admit the precariousness of the situation. If the Tans had kept their nerve or had adequate leadership, they might have inflicted grievous losses on their assailants. [10]

In the Wilderness

volunteersDrillingThe column stayed in the Summerhill area for over a fortnight where Tormey utilised his British Army expertise to put it through a training course. Emboldened by their earlier success and not wanting to rest on their laurels, the Volunteers set up three ambush positions in succession for RIC cycle patrols, only for none to show. Skirting Athlone on its Connaught side, the column packed up and crossed the Shannon, aiming to set up camp near Ballymahon.

En route, the column held a court-martial of a prisoner held by the local Volunteers acting as a makeshift police force. The prisoner was found innocent and, though O’Meara does not give any further details, it is a reminder that the role of the IRA at this time was not limited to the military sphere.

Having arrived in Ballyhamon, the column slept in a hayshed for three or four nights. O’Meara searched for a suitable ambush site on the Athlone-Ballymahon road but when that proved fruitless, the column returned the way it had come, crossing the Shannon, and tried their luck again for a few more days along the Galway road but, once again, no enemy patrol was obliging enough to show itself.

Undaunted, Tormey decided to lead his unit to Faheran, where it had originally begun, and from there to Moate. If the column could not find any enemy patrols to attack there, it would try its luck against the local police barracks, though more for the nuisance value than any realistic hope of capturing it. [11]


It was at Moate that cracks appeared in the column. The men arrived at 3 am, near the ‘Cat and Bag’ publichouse, and were detailed to neighbouring billets with local Volunteers. O’Meara, who was shouldering some of the leadership duties in the column, told the men before dismissal to assemble outside the ‘Cat and Bag’ later in the day at 7 pm.

O’Meara and O’Brien, who had been billeted together, arrived at the publichouse at the appointed time to find only one other Volunteer there. After waiting for three hours in vain for the rest to show, the trio decided to have some tea inside.

The barmaid served them their tea but with bad grace and a refusal to take payment. Puzzled by the hostility, the three men resumed the wait outside until 11 pm when Tormey and another column member, Thomas Costello, arrived to say that the ‘Cat and Bag’ had been raided the previous night for drink and cigarettes. Worse, the culprits had been members of the column and the local Volunteers.


The discipline that the column depended on was in danger of coming undone. Tormey and O’Meara agreed that reigning in the baser instincts of their colleagues would be impossible and that it would be better to split up the column for better control.

That is at least O’Meara’s version of events. The other two present who left BMH Statements for posterity, Costello and O’Brien, agree that the column was divided around this time but no such incident at the ‘Cat and Bag’ is mentioned. But then it was not something on the column’s record that anyone would find flattering. That O’Meara described it all the same gives his Statement credibility. [12]

Whatever the reason, the column was never the same after Parkwood. While the column made an effort to follow through on its initial success, it would cease to function as a whole. Volunteers outside the column saw only a lull of activity and cited disorganisation and disarray as the cause.

Upon his return from Dublin, Daly found that many of the original members were absent. In their place were newcomers who had only the credentials of being on the run but not weapons of their own in a unit already lacking in armaments. “It was more of a gathering now than a column,” Daly thought. By Christmas the unit had disbanded for the holidays with the intention of reforming in the New Year. Perhaps they would have better luck by then. [13]

James Tormey

RIC men

On 2nd February 1921, a party of eight RIC policemen on cycles were making their way up the Athlone-Ballinasloe road when they were fired upon. At the forefront of the assault was Tormey, grieving for his brother who had recently been shot dead by a sentry while in Ballykinlar internment camp. Impatience for revenge, Tormey had been leading an IRA party to Summerhill when he had spotted the forerunners of the RIC patrol coming towards them.

Accounts vary as to Tormey’s actions. One version has it that, much like the Parkwood ambush, Tormey assumed the few men ahead of him were alone and he failed to see the rest of their patrol, prompting him to shoot at what he falsely assumed would be easy targets.

In another retelling, Tormey could see the patrol in its entirety and, judging it to be too dangerous, ordered the others to hide. As the enemy passed by, Tormey, for whatever reason, broke his own instructions and his cover.

Alternatively, the ambush had been planned all along. That none of the sources – O’Meara, Daly and Thomas Costello – were present, and since Tormey never got a chance to explain, means that we will never know for sure.

A shootout ensured, with the two groups committed to a fight that perhaps neither had wanted. One of the Volunteers shot the cap off a RIC officer and promptly lost the foresights of his rifle to a return bullet – both men were otherwise miraculously untouched.

soldiersBelatedly deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, Tormey initiated a retreat, being the first into a ditch behind the ambush site. There he was shot in the head before he could realise he had been outflanked. Some of the RIC had edged down a lane that ran at right angles to the site, an opening the IRA had neglected to watch, from where they opened fire to surprise their ambushers in turn.

By the time the local Volunteers arrived and armed to assist, the ambushers and the RIC had left. Only Tormey’s dead body remained. Neither side had lingered long enough to take it. He was 21 years old. [14]


Tormey’s death left a void that the remainder of the column worked hard, though never entirely succeeded, in filling. O’Meara took charge of the unit in addition to being Brigade O/C. According to Daly, however, he was not capable of shouldering the responsibility.

For his part, O’Meara felt undermined by the unraveling discipline within the Brigade as a whole. Individual officers and even ordinary Volunteers were taking it upon themselves to act without waiting for permission. Further undermining O’Meara’s authority was the suspicion that he was blocking any operations in Athlone for fear of his property or himself being harmed by the authorities in retaliation.



A solution came in late March or early April 1921 when a representative from GHQ, Simon Donnelly, arrived in the area. O’Meara had already submitted a report to Dublin asking for a suitable newcomer to be sent to replace him as O/C. Feeling that a fresh start for the Brigade was needed, O’Meara announced his intention to resign at a staff meeting with Donnelly.

According to O’Meara, Donnelly urged him to continue on, loath as he was to lose an experienced hand, but O’Meara insisted, arguing that given the doubts about him, it was impossible to continue. O’Meara got his wish and resumed service as an ordinary member in a column whose future was looking uncertain.

volunteersTwoDespite O’Meara continuing on as an active Volunteer, there is a dearth of much further activity in his BMH Statement. When the Truce came into effect, he attended an IRA officers’ training camp where he was faced with the choice of taking up soldiering on a professional basis in an army that was to be restructured on regular lines or to return to the business he had neglected. O’Meara decided on the latter. Reading between the lines of O’Meara’s Statement, one can detect an air of exhaustion after all the work he had done and for very little reward or gratitude.

After the change in leadership, the column members were divided as O’Meara and Tormey had planned and now assigned to different areas. From there they would assist other Volunteers in their local battalions. The emphasis had shifted from a professional outfit to more part-time groups that would only assemble when needed and, hopefully, be easier to manage. The days of flying freely were over even if the War was not.[15]


The Athlone column remained scattered up to the Truce, partly because of the new policy but also due to the increased pressure from the Crown garrison. The column, in the opinion of Henry O’Brien, had not been the success many had hoped. Poor luck and the elusiveness of the enemy had hampered ambushes being attempted, and the Brigade had been unable to seize large enough caches of weapons to augment its ever-limited armoury.

O’Brien believed that forming the column had been a mistake. Far better, he thought, to have gone with what eventually happened – smaller units formed and attached to battalion areas – from the start.[16]

The column left a mixed legacy – of missed opportunities and misplaced priorities, according to some. Nonetheless, it was able to pull off an ambush, no small feat in a war in which the vast majority of such attempts were thwarted in some way. Afterwards it had avoided capture or elimination, not something every column in the War could claim.

While far from a success, the Athlone flying column was at least not a failure. That may not be a particularly heroic legacy. But, then, heroics only go so far.

War of Independence memorial statue, Athlone


See also: Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920


[1] O’Meara, Seumas (BHM / WS 1504), pp. 32-3 ; O’Connor, Frank (BHM / WS 1309), p. 18 ; Westmeath Independent, 23/10/1920

[2] O’Meara, pp. 10-12

[3] Ibid, p. 34 ; O’Connor, p. 24 ; O’Brien, Henry (BHM / WS 1308), pp. 11-2 ; Daly, David (BHM / WS 1337), pp. 16-8 ; Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), pp. 15-6 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH / WS 1503), p. 17 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500), p. 9

[4] McCormack, Michael, p. 18

[5] O’Brien, pp. 22-3

[6] O’Brien, p. 11 ; Costello, p. 12 ; O’Meara, p. 31 ; Westmeath Examiner, 12/02/1921

[7] O’Brien, p. 11 ; Costello, p. 16 ; O’Meara, p. 34 ; Daly, p. 17

[8] O’Brien, p. 22

[9] O’Meara, pp. 34-5 ; Daly, pp. 17-8

[10] O’Meara, pp. 35-7 ; O’Brien, pp. 12-3 ; Costello, pp. 16-7 ; McCormack, Anthony, p. 10 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 17 ; WI, 30/10/1920

[11] O’Meara, pp. 37-8 ; Costello, p. 17

[12] O’Meara, p. 38

[13] McCormack, Anthony, p. 10 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 18 ; Costello, p. 17 ; Daly, pp. 21, 23

[14] O’Meara, pp. 45-7 ; Daly, pp. 22-3 ; Costello, p. 18 ; WE, 12/02/1921

[15] Daly, p. 22 ; O’Brien, p. 24 ; O’Meara, pp. 47-8, 50 ; O’Connor, p. 23 ; McCormack, Anthony, p. 10

[16] O’Brien, pp. 22-3


Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement

Daly, David, WS 1337

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Brien, Henry, WS 1308

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504


Westmeath Independent, 23/10/1920

Westmeath Independent, 30/10/1920

Westmeath Examiner, 12/02/1921

Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920

A Challenge to the People?

In Mullingar police barracks, on 4th August 1920, concerns, both personal and political, came to a head. When Constable Roarke was detailed to the four-man patrol for night duty through the town of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, he declined to carry a gun, saying that it was not necessary.

This refusal was in breach of recent regulations whereby two of the men in a patrol were to carry revolvers while the other pair took rifles. When the matter was reported to his senior officer, Roarke again abstained, explaining that for him to bear arms while on duty would be tantamount to a challenge to the people.

RIC_Enfield Rifles
RIC members with rifles

Roarke had had eight and a half years of service in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), a respectable length of time which would suggest he was not known to be of an insubordinate nature. But faced with Roarke’s obstinacy, the County Inspector told him he would be dismissed instantly unless he resigned first. Roarke responded by handing in his resignation before throwing off his police uniform.

Roarke was accompanied by a second policeman in Mullingar barracks, Constable McGovern. Being of the same view as Roarke and knowing he was detailed to the night patrol on the following night where he would be faced with the same choice, McGovern decided to cut to the chase and also resigned.

“It is also stated,” reported the Westmeath Guardian, “that further resignations are expected.”[1]

On the Outside

RIC_Group_photographThis exodus from the RIC prompted the Ballymore Council to pass a resolution at its monthly meeting on 19th August 1920, congratulating the policemen who had resigned. Its following resolution was telling: an agreement to strike a rate of pay for the upkeep of the Irish Volunteers, or the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as the organisation had renamed itself. After all, it was the IRA, not the RIC, who were now performing the policing duties in Ballymore as well as the rest of Co. Westmeath.[2]

The Volunteers who later recounted their experiences in their Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statements were sure that the redundancy of the RIC as a police force was due to the people losing confidence in them. The Volunteers, however, were able to maintain the cooperation of the public who increasingly took their disputes, mostly over land or petty robberies, to the IRA, now partnered with the Sinn Féin courts. Most work by the Volunteers throughout 1919 and early 1920 were concerned with such duties and, while tedious, they helped maintain a sense of purpose and discipline amongst the fledgling militia.[3]

The RIC seemed to assist in its own replacement by withdrawing from public duties. On 20th May, the Westmeath County Council read out a letter, received from the “Adjutant of the Westmeath Brigade of the Irish Republican Army”, offering the services of the Brigade in protecting the voting booths for the forthcoming local elections.

Most of the Council were in favour of accepting this offer. The only bone of contention was that the Council had already made arrangements with the men employed under the Direct Labour Scheme. As for the RIC, they had not been asked but as its members had refused to police the booths in other areas, there did not seem to be much point in asking. After some discussion, the Council agreed that the letter would be approved and the services of the Volunteers accepted.[4]

The election success of Sinn Féin in the June elections allowed its members to implement rebellion into policy through the local government boards that they now dominated. The newly-formed Westmeath County Council made its views clear when it passed a resolution recognising the authority of the Dáil Éireann.[5]

RIC Constables with rifles

Other boards passed harsh measures against those who still upheld Crown legitimacy. The Mullingar Board of Directors decided at its fortnightly meeting on 24th June to call on the District Hospital doctor to eject three RIC men at present in his hospital and to refuse admission under any circumstances to a member of that police force. The RIC was, after all, a “blue-coated army of occupation” which had “ceased to be a civil force, and they were now a military force.” RIC personnel needing treatment were to go to Mountjoy as “there was a military hospital where they could be treated.”[6]

Barrack Attacks

The war against the RIC in Westmeath was carried out with more than council resolutions and boycotts. The series of isolated shootings and arm-raids across Ireland snowballed into set-piece attacks and then finally a full-blown insurgency. Although never envisioned as such, this ‘gun and ballot’ approach was carried out with a success that later revolutionaries in Ireland could only dream of emulating.

Police barracks throughout the country were obvious targets for an increasingly confident and organised IRA, although the latter aspect should not be overstated at this stage given the numerous false starts that occurred.

RIC barracks

Just after Christmas 1919, Seumas O’Meara, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, attended a GHQ meeting in Dublin. Told by his superiors that it was time for the IRA to become more active, O’Meara agreed to arrange an attack on a police barrack by early 1920. Upon returning to Athlone, O’Meara called a meeting of the other Brigade officers. It was decided that the barracks at Ballymore and Castletown Geoghegan would be targeted at night on 20th February.

Ballymore Barracks was in the territory of the Drumraney Battalion and so would be their responsibility. In this, they would be assisted by the Athlone Battalion under O’Meara’s direct command, while the Mullingar Battalion agreed to take on Castletown Geoghegan Barracks.

The Athlone Brigade

The Athlone Brigade encompassed a number of battalions: originally four before the Mullingar one was made a separate brigade, which took the Athlone battalions down to three. These in turn consisted of different companies. In theory, this gave O’Meara access to all the manpower involved. Making use of it, however, would prove to be a different matter.

Both operations withered on the vine. In preparation for the one against Ballymore Barracks, all rifles that were to be used by the Athlone battalion were forwarded to Drumraney where they would be collected at assembly points at a fixed time for the attack. The Volunteers were by now equipped with a number of shotguns and revolvers for close-up fighting but rifles were prized for the range they provided.

At the appointed date, O’Meara travelled with twenty selected men from the Athlone battalion to Drumraney and they were then guided by a local contact to their assembly point near the unsuspecting barracks. There they waited for the Drumraney battalion to arrive with the forwarded rifles at the agreed time of midnight.

No one came, however. By 6 am, the Athlone men had had enough and returned home. Without the rifles to keep the barracks’ garrison pinned down, their shotguns and revolvers would not have been enough.

Either confusion in the dark had been the cause for the no-show or, as O’Meara suspected, the Drumraney Volunteers had not wanted the trouble an attack on the barracks would bring on them.

The Mullingar men, for their part, had got drunk and managed to fell a tree to use as a road-block before calling off the mission.[7]

The Razing of the Barracks

RIC_Station_BadgeIt was not until mid-1920 that operations against RIC barracks by the Athlone Brigade were actually implemented. Even then, the majority of these were after their garrisons had been evacuated, making their destruction a relatively easy accomplishment.

One such set-piece was the razing of Brawney Barracks on 31st July along with the adjacent building that had formerly been used as a Crown courthouse. The fifteen men involved had choreographed their arson to a fine degree. Guards were placed on laneways and entrances to bar pedestrians from intruding. After entering the abandoned barracks through the back window, the Volunteers holed the roof on each side. The rafters and floor were saturated with fuel and then set ablaze. Their mission complete, the fifteen men dispersed in small groups, leaving Brawney Barracks to be thoroughly gutted by the fire.[8]

The majority of razed barracks in Co. Westmeath and the rest of the country were accomplished on Easter Sunday night in accordance to GHQ instructions. On one hand, the whole affair was little more than a propaganda exercise as the military value was negligible; after all, any country house could be converted into a replacement barracks by the Crown authorities.

But the widespread success of their operations was gratifying all the same for the Volunteers to read about in the newspapers. In any case, with the RIC in retreat, the IRA was allowed a greater freedom of movement in the country, a necessity for any guerrilla force.[9]


One of the exceptional times when a barrack was assaulted with its garrison still inside was on 25th July. Seumas O’Meara had announced at a Brigade staff meeting the need to take a more proactive approach and, after some discussion, Streamstown Barracks was decided upon as the one to attack.

A two-storey building of solid stone masonry, the barracks stood by itself beside a railway line and close to the Streamstown railway station. It had not been fortified with sandbags or barbed wire like some of the other remaining outposts but it had no windows at its rear or gable ends that could provide weak spots for an attacker and the windows at its front had recently been fitted with steel shutters. Complete with a garrison of seven constables and a sergeant, Streamstown Barracks presented a formidable challenge.

O’Meara drew up an elaborate set of plans: ladders would be placed against the windowless rear wall, by which selected men would climb onto the roof, which would be holed to allow for petrol to be poured through and set alight. The rest of the attack party would be busy keeping the garrison pinned down.

Irish Volunteers/IRA

Upon hearing this outline, Thomas Costello, the Vice O/C of the Athlone Brigade, dismissed it as convoluted. According to Costello in his BMH Statement, he proposed an alternative to O’Meara: a number of the garrison had been observed to be in the habit of leaving the barracks each Sunday for Mass. These churchgoers would be waylaid and divested of their uniforms which would be donned by members of the assault party. The rest of the party would lie in wait outside the barracks to rush the door when it would be opened for the disguised Volunteers.

O’Meara reluctantly agreed to go along with this substitute plan while keeping his original one as a backup; at least, according to Costello. Neither O’Meara nor any of the other BMH Statements that cover the assault on Streamstown Barracks mention any disagreement on strategy.

Men from the Athlone, Moate and Drumraney Companies were selected to assist the local Volunteers with the attack. A newspaper report numbered them as sixty, O’Meara said eighty, though there were only weapons for about twenty to twenty-five of them.

On Sunday morning as planned, members of the attack party mingled with people on their way to Mass and, when the three policemen came along from church, they were held up and robbed of their uniforms.

Plan A

Thomas Costello and a second man, James Tormey, put on the captured uniforms, leaving their former owners bound up in a farmhouse. When Costello and Tormey rejoined O’Meara, they found him drilling the rest of the team on the road in the open. As if this was not blatant enough, the Volunteers squandered time getting into position and, when they had done so, did a poor job of hiding by constantly peering over walls and so forth. Costello could see the steel shutters being put in place over the windows of the barracks, confirming his suspicion that O’Meara had squandered the element of surprise.

Determined to see things through to the end all the same, Costello and Tormey cycled to the door of the barracks. On finding it locked, they knocked and were answered by a voice on the other side, presumably the sergeant’s, asking who was there. Costello replied: “Police.”

When asked which barracks he was from, Costello said the Ballymore one and that his business in Streamstown was to deliver some dispatches. Asked for his name, Costello said it was ‘Curran’ as he knew there was a Constable Curran in Ballymore.

Before he could congratulate himself on his cleverness, he was pressed for his full name but here Costello had no ready reply. Immediately, there were sounds on the other side of the door of hurried footsteps, rifles being loaded and a staircase being climbed. The obviously spooked garrison were readying for a full-on assault.

Plan B

Tormey had the presence of mind to grab Costello by his uniform’s cape and drag him to cover on the railway track just in time to avoid the explosion of a grenade that had been pushed through the loophole in a steel shutter. They also narrowly avoided friendly fire when the Drumraney Volunteers, from their position on a hill overlooking the barracks, mistook the two runners for genuine policemen.

With the opening gambit blown, the Volunteers along the railway embankment reverted to their original plan and opened fire. Their shots were concentrated on the front of the barracks, where the windows were and from where any return fire would likely come.

Meanwhile, O’Meara led six or seven men to the building’s rear where the lack of windows allowed for a blind-spot. There they positioned a homemade bomb constructed out of fruit-tins filled with gelignite, hoping to blow in the wall. The bomb failed to go off, possibly due to a damp fuse.


The assault lasted between half to three quarters of an hour before Volunteers withdrew from fear of enemy reinforcements and recognition of the futility of any further attempt. The Westmeath Independent has it that the retreat was upon hearing the hum of an airplane, an explanation not mentioned in any of the BMH Statements and so it is probably mistaken.

Though Streamstown Barracks frustrated the attempts to break it, its position was decided as untenable and its garrison was withdrawn to Mullingar the next day. Streamstown suffered the fate of all other exposed barracks and was razed later that day by the local Volunteers.

Ruined RIC barracks

There were no fatalities on either side, though a member of the garrison was wounded and the Volunteers rued the loss of valuable ammunition. Costello was sufficiently outraged by what he saw as poor planning on O’Meara’s part that he submitted a detailed report to GHQ, sparing his O/C no mercy. According to Costello, the report was enough to have O’Meara suspended and replaced as O/C of the Athlone Brigade by Costello.

However, other sources make it clear that O’Meara’s demotion did not occur until 1921 and for reasons unrelated to the Streamstown attack. It can only be concluded that Costello was confused on this particular point.[10]

Not another Mail Raid

On 2nd August, the mail trains were raided at Fossagh Bridge on the Athlone-Moate line. In what was described as resembling a ‘Wild West stunt’, masked men loaded the mail onto motor cars and drove away. By itself, this was nothing new, the Westmeath Independent exuding an air of languid boredom in its coverage:

The raiding of mail trains and the confiscation of official correspondence has latterly become so common in Ireland as to excite nothing beyond a mere passing interest.[11]

What was a novelty, however, was how the hijackers had managed to raid not one but two trains. That there was only an interval of ten minutes between the trains as they passed in the opposite directions – the first from Dublin to Galway, the second being the Galway-Dublin one – allowed both to be robbed in quick succession.

The stolen mail was transferred to a safe location, after which it took a week to censor all the letters, each one being marked with ‘Passed by I.R.A. Censor’ before being dumped at Ballinahown Post Office.

There were two main points of interest uncovered. The first were the numerous letters to RIC members from their relatives, appealing to them to resign, which revealed the strain the force was now under.

The second was a dispatch from RIC Sergeant Thomas Martin Craddock, a mainstay of Athlone Barracks who was on temporary assignment to Mount Temple. Craddock had not been idle with his time. In his letter addressed to the head constable in Athlone, Craddock gave a survey of the whole position of the area, accompanied by a proposal on the best ways to combat the ongoing insurgency.[12]

Enemy Number One

Craddock was already known to the Westmeath IRA as a determined foe. To Seumas O’Meara, Craddock was a brute who would hold a gun to the heads of suspected Volunteers with the threat to shoot them if they did not talk. However, the one example we have of Craddock interrogating a suspect – a man attempting to smuggle a rifle under his coat for the IRA – was performed professionally enough.[13]

Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers/IRA

One incident which Craddock could not have been responsible for was the maiming of Joseph Cunningham. According to O’Meara, Cunningham and some other Volunteers had ejected a number of the RIC from a pub in Mount Temple as part of the policing duties the IRA had undertaken. O’Meara claimed that some nights later, Craddock led an RIC posse in the beating of Cunningham and his brother, reducing Joseph to a “wreck of a man for ever afterwards.”[14]

A newspaper account dates the incident to 27th August. For reasons that will become clear, Craddock could not have been party to it. In other ways, the newspaper confirms details of O’Meara’s version. Cunningham, identified as an officer in the local Volunteers, was supervising the area when he ordered four men out of a pub. Cunningham was about to make his way home by bicycle when the four evictees knocked him down and kicked him unconscious. O’Meara was correct about the brutality of the assault and the damage done to the victim, Cunningham being left in a critical condition with the fear he would never walk again.

But the newspaper made no mention of the assailants being RIC men; indeed, it is unlikely that a sole Volunteer (there is no mention of anyone else with Cunningham) would have been enough to overawe a group of RIC men, however demoralised the force. The group of men also attacked immediately after they were forced from the pub, indicating that they were acting on a spur-of-the-moment vindictiveness with no great length of time in between as in O’Meara’s version.

Cunningham’s story is a warning about the dangers of community policing, especially with inexperienced officers but it is perhaps also a testament to Craddock’s status as the number one menace that, years later, his enemies would confuse him with having a role in any ill that had befallen a Volunteer.[15]

Sergeant Craddock

Forty-seven years of age and unmarried, Craddock had practically been born in the RIC, being the son of a head constable, and had given twenty-five years of service in addition to being a veteran of the Boer War.

Michael Collins

His return from Mount Temple to Athlone, and his transfer to the Crimes Special Headquarters there, was unsettling enough for O’Meara, in an interview with Michael Collins, to try talking his way out of an order to target the leading intelligence officer in the Athlone garrison by painting a grim picture of what Craddock would do in retaliation.

Collins’ characteristic suggestion was to shoot Craddock first and anyone else later. To hammer the point home, Collins appointed O’Meara the Competent Military Authority for Co Westmeath, enabling O’Meara to order anyone to be killed without needing permission from GHQ first.[16]

Thus empowered and under pressure to accomplish something, O’Meara assembled a hit-team consisting of five or six Volunteers, including himself and Thomas Costello, for Craddock. Things were complicated by police patrols having been strengthened from four to eight, and by how cautiously the sergeant moved around Athlone. O’Meara counted six occasions, and Costello four, when the hit-team waited to ambush Craddock, only to be left disappointed when the sergeant never came.

This was typical enough in the War of Independence, where the tedium of waiting and the come-down of false starts were more the norm than the deeds of derring-do which would later fill the history books.

A Lucky Break

Another opening to catch Craddock on patrol on 21st August seemed a dud as he was to be leading a squad of eight, the sort of numbers that the hit-team did not care to risk confronting. As the team made their way back home, Craddock was spotted entering the Comrades of the Great War Club on King Street, Athlone, at 11:45 pm.


Thomas Costello was in the shop where he worked when another Volunteer dropped by to tell him where Craddock was. Costello immediately gathered the rest of the team except for O’Meara, and they lay in wait outside the Club, armed with revolvers.

Craddock indulged himself with a few drinks at the Club bar while he watched a billiard match. Half an hour after midnight, he decided to leave with a colleague, Constable Denis Mahon. Mahon was first through the door. The moment Craddock stepped out onto the street, a shot rang out in the dark, followed by several more. The two men rang up the street in the direction of the nearby military barracks, Craddock making a few paces before falling to the ground under the hail of bullets.

To the Bitter End

Though in great pain, the bloodied-but-unbowed sergeant drew his revolver from where he lay and fired at the retreating backs of his assailants as they made their escape up King Street. It was later estimated that Craddock had managed three shots as a bullet was found in the wall of a gable of a barber’s shop, another had passed through a window and a third had had the force to penetrate the door of another hairdressing establishment where it was found lodged in the woodwork of the interior.

Other bullet-marks found on the buildings in the street indicated that the assassins had fired back in reply while in flight. Other than a bullet through the trousers of one of the gunmen, the team got away unscathed.

Mahon went looking for help while others from the Club did all they could for the wounded man. Craddock was carried to the military barracks where he died half an hour later with Mahon by his side.

The coroner found a number of wounds on the body: one from a bullet on the right side of the abdomen, superficial burns on the front of the abdomen from the same shot and two holes on either side of his shoulder from where a second bullet had passed cleanly through. The bullet that had entered the abdomen was found in the left side of the pelvis where it had fractured the bone and it was this that had caused Craddock’s death from shock and haemorrhaging.

Athlone Barracks

Mahon was unharmed from the fray. According to Costello, he had been left alone as the team had nothing against him. O’Meara, however, has it that one of the shooters had aimed three times at Mahon, only for the gun to jam. Either way, Costello was to regret that Mahon was untouched as the constable “turned out to be a right villain and excelled himself in ill-treating people by beating them up.” After the trauma of watching his companion die, this maliciousness on Mahon’s part is perhaps unsurprising.

Craddock’s murder made a total of seven RIC men killed over the weekend throughout Ireland. The fatalities came from all ranks: DI Oswald Swanzy (targeted for his suspected role in the slaying of Tomás Mac Curtain), two sergeants and four constables.

The jury at the inquest into Craddock’s death expressed their heartfelt sympathy to his relatives but otherwise delivered only a muted verdict of “death…by persons unknown.”[17]

The Changing of the Guard

Reflecting upon the rapidly changing situation in Ireland, the Westmeath Independent offered guarded praise for a police force whose time had come to an end even if the force itself had not:

Even the Irish police, where they can, have hurried out of the service. With all that may be said against it, up to now it was, anyway, an Irish service, manned by Irish men instinct with Irish feeling though often obliged to undertake work through mistaken loyalty that was painfully disagreeable. Still they managed up to now, not withstanding the violence of many agitations, to remain on fairly good terms with their countrymen.

It is an Irish service no longer. It is being daily recruited from England. The Irishmen in the service feel the change. They remain only until they can get out.[18]

The new blood in the RIC alluded to were the influx of ex-soldiers that would become known as the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. While they succeeded in stiffening the spine of a beleaguered RIC, they also hastened its end as a community police force and its transformation into a nakedly militarised one. But while it removed any moral authority from the RIC, it was also to make life a lot harder for the Volunteers.


Under the renewed pressure, the policing by the Volunteers came to an end.[19] Survival became the priority. More Volunteers went on the run to avoid the round-ups and mass arrests as well as responding with an increased level of violence of their own.

It was not to be the end of the War in Co. Westmeath. It was, however, the end of the RIC of old.

Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2015)

See also:

A Clenched Fist Open: The Flying Column of the Athlone Brigade, 1920-1

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


[1] Westmeath Guardian, 06/08/1920

[2] Westmeath Independent, 21/08/1920

[3] Costello, Thomas (BMH / WS 1296), p. 7-8 ; Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), p. 5 ; McCormack, Michael (BMH /  WS 1503), pp. 12-3

[4] Westmeath Examiner, 22/05/1920

[5] Westmeath Independent, 12/06/1920

[6] Ibid, 26/06/1920

[7] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), pp. 19-20 ; McCormack, Michael, p. 14

[8] Westmeath Independent 07/07/1920

[9] O’Meara, pp. 20-1 ; Costello, p. 7

[10] O’Meara, p. 25-7 ; Costello, pp. 10-2 ; O’Connor, Frank (BMH / WS 1309), pp. 12-4 ; Daly, David (BMH /  WS 1337), pp. 13-5 ; McCormack, Anthony (BMH / WS 1500) ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 15-6 ; Westmeath Independent 31/07/1920

[11] Westmeath Independent, 07/08/1920

[12] Costello, pp. 12-3 ; O’Meara, p. 25 ; O’Connor, pp. 11-2

[13] O’Meara, p. 28 ; McCormack, Michael, pp. 13-4

[14] O’Meara, p. 28

[15] Westmeath Independent, 28/08/1920

[16] O’Meara, p. 29

[17] O’Meara, p. 30-31 ; Costello, p. 13 ; Westmeath Independent 28/08/1920

[18] Westmeath Independent, 31/07/1920

[19] Costello, p. 8


Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Costello, Thomas, WS 1296

Daly, David, WS 1337

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

McCormack, Anthony, WS 1500

McCormack, Michael, WS 1503

O’Connor, Frank, WS 1309

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Westmeath Examiner


Westmeath Guardian


Westmeath Independent








‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4

Liam Lynch

Liam Lynch

By November 1922, five months into the Irish Civil War, Liam Lynch was a busy man as Chief of Staff to the Anti-Treatyite IRA. Not too busy, however, to turn his thoughts towards an issue that he believed needed serious consideration: the state of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). With that in mind, he wrote to one of his most trusted lieutenants, Liam Deasy. Displaying a sentimental streak, he asked Deasy for advice on how best to “save the honour of this splendid historic organisation.”

As a member of the IRB’s Supreme Council, Lynch had watched with dismay the direction the Brotherhood’s leadership had taken. With the death of Harry Boland, and the imprisonment of Joe McKelvey and Charlie Daly who had both also taken the anti-Treaty line, he was now the sole remaining Council member opposed to the Treaty who was alive and at liberty.

Determined not to let opportunities pass by, Lynch outlined to Deasy his idea that the IRB Division Council call on its secretary to reopen an adjourned meeting from before. Represented at this meeting would be the Supreme Council and a number of IRB middle-tier officers. If necessary, signatures would be taken of as many officers could be had, as most of them had been against the Treaty at the last session. Lynch was clearly aiming to go into such a showdown with the numbers loaded in his favour.

At this hypothetical congress, each member of the Supreme Council would be held to account for their sanctioning of the hated Treaty and their waging of war against fellow Republicans. The guilty individuals – and Lynch clearly had certain people in mind – would be removed, leaving the Supreme Council free to be reformed on appropriately anti-Treaty lines. If such individuals were to refuse such a meeting, the Supreme Council could be reorganised without the guilty members who would be dropped altogether.

Florence O’Donoghue

Lynch asked Deasy to show his letter to other IRB members, including Seán O’Hegarty and Florence O’Donoghue. Although both men had taken a neutral stance for the Civil War, Lynch believed they would support him in bringing the IRB “back to the old idea.” All three of them, after all, had formed close bonds from serving together in the Cork IRA during War of Independence and remained his confidants even as they had backed away from either side in the succeeding conflict.[1]

Playing Possum

The IRB – also known as the Organisation to insiders – provides a challenge to researchers in that the sources do not necessarily provide a clear narrative. Being a secret society, it was not in its nature to advertise itself or leave convenient records for historians. Nonetheless, some paperwork was essential to maintain communications between the various groups and individuals making up of the IRB, and enough has survived to make sense of the society as it went through one of the most turbulent times in modern Irish history.

This article does not aspire to explain the IRB at this period in its entirety at this period. Instead, it will attempt to shed some light on the thoughts of the men within the Brotherhood and what they hoped to achieve with it.

Part of the problem of studying the IRB in the later stages of the War of Independence and afterwards is that even contemporaries were not sure if this secretive fraternity was still around in any meaningful sense. It was the viewpoint of James Hogan, “on the eve of the Truce the IRB was semi-moribund beneath, and alive only on top or in its upper levels.”[2]

As Hogan was Director of Intelligence in the Free State army, this was a substantial opinion, and one supported by others. Two of the leading figures in the Athlone IRA Brigade characterised the Organisation as falling into disuse during the later stages of the War of Independence as British efforts intensified and communications became difficult. But they also described the IRB as being revived during the breathing space provided by the Truce.[3]

This spoke of one of the Brotherhood’s great strengths: the ability to lie dormant until the pressure had slackened, allowing it to pick itself up again. It survived the Easter Rising which had seen its senior leaders executed and their replacements forced to start anew. As Liam Lynch saw it, there was no reason why the Organisation could not be recovered again, this time from its split over the Treaty.

The IRB would be condemned by critics as the instigator behind the acceptance of the fateful Treaty. Éamon de Valera cursed the machinations of “secret societies” within the Dáil as the Treaty was debated. When the Dáil ended up carrying the Treaty by a small majority, Seán T. O’Kelly held the IRB to blame, and rhetorically asked how such a crowd could be held as honest men.[4]

So there is then a certain poignancy in how Lynch, who would similarly be censured by many for leading the Anti-Treaty side into a doomed fight, did not lose his faith in the Brotherhood and what it could accomplish.

Dissent in the Ranks

Given the policy of the IRB to focus its recruitment among the IRA on officers and others with influence, it is perhaps not surprising that onlookers like James Hogan saw the Brotherhood as essentially an elitist society, one with a head but not necessarily much of a body.

It was a view that Florence O’Donoghue was keen to challenge in his later writings. To him, the IRB had been a living, active group. If there had been anything moribund about it, it was its upper tiers who had forsaken the Republic when they had accepted the Treaty. The rank and file of the Organisation, O’Donoghue stressed, “believed with passionate intensity in the de facto existence of the Republic, and they hotly resented that any group of men, even chosen leaders, should attempt to assume the power of destroying what they had sworn to uphold.”[5]

As an example of this intensity to the point of disobedience, O’Donoghue cited a meeting of all the officers in the County Board officers and District Centres of the IRB on the 21st of January 1922. There, they protested to the Supreme Council against the latter’s support of the Treaty. “Only a high sense of duty could have driven a group of disciplined officers into such open conflict with their superiors,” was how O’Donoghue explained it, with pride and no small sense of wonder.[6]

A Democratic Conspiracy

It would be worthwhile at this point to assess how the IRB was structured. A detailed description is found in the nine-page IRB Constitution from 1920. It was marked as “revised to date”, making it the most current version that would have been available to Lynch and O’Donoghue.

The basic unit of the society was its Circles, which were divided into sections of not more than ten men each, and which elected an officer, or Centre, for the Circle.

Each county in Ireland was divided into two or more Districts. Centres in each District formed a board which elected a committee for itself. Cities were enough to be considered Districts in themselves.

Further up the hierarchy were the County Centres, elected by the local Centres in each county. District Centres and County Circles were grouped into the eleven Divisions encompassing the IRB’s sphere of influence: eight Divisions for Ireland, two for the south and north halves of England, and one for Scotland.

At the apex of this pyramid was the Supreme Council. District Centres and County Circles in each Division elected by ballot a five-strong committee which in turn elected someone to represent the Division on the Supreme Council. These eleven men, one for each Division, would co-opt four additional members, leading to a total membership of fifteen for the Council.

As its name would suggest, the Supreme Council demanded, and for the most part, commanded the respect of the rest of the IRB: “The authority of the Supreme Council shall be unquestioned.” It claimed the authority to inflict punishments on errant members such as suspensions, dismissals or, in the cases of those termed treasonous, the death penalty.

But at the same time the IRB Constitution was at pains to ensure its leadership was a representative one, and that the middle and lower tiers had some say in the make-up of the ones above. It was that democratic tradition that Liam Lynch was hoping to tap into when he made his proposals to reform the Supreme Council.[7]

Florence O’Donoghue

There would be few people better qualified to critique Lynch’s views on IRB reform than O’Donoghue, having risen through the fraternity’s ranks in the months before the Truce, allowing him opportunity to observe its inner workings.

He had been an early member of the Cork IRB in the opening salves of the War of Independence, and had remained with it even while troubled by the issues of a dual command within the IRA that a secret society would bring. O’Donoghue’s decision to stay with the IRB seems to have been largely based on the realisation that the Brotherhood would continue to be a deciding force behind the scenes. Which is lucky for historians, as it is in no small part due to him and his meticulous note-taking that as much is known about the IRB for this time.[8]

Seán Ó Muirthile caricature

O’Donoghue was promoted to responsibility over the Circles in Cork City and the county in March 1921. A letter from Seán Ó Muirthile, a member of the Supreme Council, explained to him that Liam Lynch and he had been recommended in a high-level IRB meeting in Dublin that had included himself, Michael Collins and Liam Deasy. Although Ó Muirthile did not say, Deasy was most likely the one who pushed his fellow Corkmen forward.

As Ó Muirthile described it, O’Donoghue’s elevation to acting County Centre was a temporary one until the proper elections could be held. It was also an overdue one, as the Cork IRB was in limbo due to the loss of two of its leading lights.

Tom Hales, who had represented South Munster for the IRB as a Divisional Commander, had been arrested in July 1920 by British soldiers. His replacement, Paddy Cahill, had been unable to come from Tralee to take over, so Lynch had been asked to instead.

O’Donoghue’s role would be to replace Domhnall O’Callaghan as County Centre, as the latter had left without telling anyone, leaving the local IRB floundering. O’Callaghan’s subsequent court-martial for his dereliction of duty would be just one of the many ongoing concerns O’Donoghue would be obliged to deal with.

In addition to updating the new acting County Centre, Ó Muirthile sent O’Donoghue eight copies of general orders from the Supreme Council to distribute. Ó Muirthile comes across in his correspondence as eager to please, almost cheery, and it is sobering to think that in a little over a year’s time, the two men would be on opposing sides in the Treaty split.

General Orders

Addressed “To All County Centres” and composed on behalf of the Supreme Council, the general order that Ó Muirthile told O’Donoghue to pass on provides for historians the direction the IRB leadership was planning on taking its membership. Dated to March 1921, the document opens by stressing the importance of maintaining the Organisation in a “virile and effective position throughout the country.”

In what would have made critics like Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha grind their teeth, the Supreme Council took unreserved credit for making possible the current fight against the British. Continued coordination with the IRA was called for, as “the military functions of both bodies are similar to each other, the success or failing of one is the success or failure of both.”

The IRB had spent a lot of time infiltrating the IRA, and could boast of a large amount of the latter’s officers as its own. It clearly looked forward to the persistence of such an advantageous relationship. The document ended by reminding its readers that only “physical force methods” would have a chance of winning them anything.

Irish Volunteers

Such passages show that the Supreme Council was preparing its members for the possible continuation of the War. Also, that the IRB had no intention of stepping out of the shadows. It planned on remaining as it was before: an army within an army.

Another issue that the document addressed was that of elections throughout the levels in the IRB. The Circle elections were planned for the 15 of June 1921, the County elections on the 15th of August, and the Divisional Elections on the 15th of October. In a separate document, the County elections would be called for the 4th of November, indicating they had been pushed back. The last round of elections for the IRB had been two years ago, and the Supreme Council admitted that a lot of work would have to be made up for.

Interestingly, there seems to have been no dates set for re-electing the Supreme Council, suggesting that the democracy within the Organisation may only have been intended to go so far at this delicate stage.[9]

Treaty Reactions

O’Donoghue’s files do not indicate how these general orders were received by the Organisation audience. These files do, however, allow us insight into how some within the lower and middle ranks responded to the Treaty. By this time, O’Donoghue had gone from acting County Centre to the Divisional Secretary of South Munster, granting him supervision over the Circles in Cork, Kerry and Waterford.

The letters O’Donoghue received, or at least the ones he kept in his papers, were overwhelmingly against the Treaty. A letter from the 1st of January 1922 from a County Centre spoke of the Organisation suffering due to the uncertainty over the Treaty and an impatience for the Supreme Council to issue instructions. What was clear in this letter was that the Cork IRB was generally against the Treaty, with three District Boards forwarding resolutions to that effect.

Michael Collins

A letter to O’Donoghue on the 10th of January from Liam Lynch, by then a recent addition to the Supreme Council, bemoaned the general lack of trust within the Council, and blamed it on the likes of Ó Muirthile and Michael Collins. The disquiet was evidently as much a feature of the upper tiers as it was of the rest of the Brotherhood.

The New Political Situation

The Supreme Council released what was for many an overdue announcement. The title, ‘The Organisation and the New Political Situation in Ireland’, showed an awareness that it was treading into uncharted waters. The document was signed for the 12th of December 1921, and issued to the rest of the Brotherhood, according to O’Donoghue, on the 12th of January.

It began with a cautious, but telling, statement about how it had always been IRB policy to make use of all instruments, “political or otherwise”, towards the ultimate pursuit of the Republic. In case readers were in doubt as to what this talk of political instruments could mean, the announcement went on to state how the Supreme Council had decided that the “present peace Treaty between Ireland and Great Britain should be ratified.” The uncompromising stance from ten months back, when physical force methods were touted as the only way forward, must have seemed a long time ago.

The Supreme Council, however, appeared hesitant to push the point too far, as it allowed for IRB members doubling as TDs to vote as they saw fit on the matter. Perhaps the Council feared that to appear too domineering would push its followers into a split. Nonetheless, that was exactly what it got.[10]

Cracks Widen

Another letter from a District Centre in Cork was about a meeting held on the 18th of February 1922, where a resolution was passed expressing approval of County and Division Boards withdrawing their support from the Supreme Council over the Treaty, and calling for re-elections of the Supreme Council at the earliest date.

Irish Volunteers/IRA

All of this would support O’Donoghue’s claim in his later writings that the South Munster IRB had overwhelmingly rejected the Treaty to the point of defying their leadership. This did not mean that the rebellious rank-and-file saw themselves as in opposition to the IRB as an organisation, just its Supreme Council. After all, the same resolution by the County and Division Boards condemned the Treaty in that it was contrary to the spirit of the IRB Constitution. Little wonder, then, that Liam Lynch assumed that he would have the numbers on his side when retaking control of the Supreme Council.

This attitude was not limited to the Cork IRB. A report from Co. Kerry at the same period proudly told of how the Supreme Council’s orders had practically no effect on its Circles there, where the pro-Treaty members were very much a minority. Otherwise, the Kerry IRB was doing well and holding regular meetings. Similarly, a report from the Waterford IRB from the 13th of January 1922 enthused about how its membership had in the past month increased considerably in size to the point of having to subdivide some Circles and create new ones.

Whatever the divisions were in the ranks and at the top, the Organisation was far from moribund. Instead, it was thriving. Little wonder, then, that Liam Lynch saw that the IRB, if properly reformed under anti-Treaty lines like many of its membership already wanted, could continue to be a great asset.[11]

The Replies

Deasy did as his Chief of Staff asked and forwarded the latter’s letter to the two neutrals, Seán O’Hegarty and Florence O’Donoghue. Deasy’s covering letter to the pair was cautiously optimistic about Lynch’s proposals, though he said he was keen to have their opinions before taking any steps.

Seán O’Hegarty

O’Hegarty’s reply to Deasy was brief and unmoved. He had no idea at present on the subject of the IRB, and that in any case it seemed a waste to bother reorganising it while the war continued.

O’Donoghue’s first reply on the 2nd of December went beyond dismissive to insulting. Lynch’s idea was absurd, which surprised O’Donoghue as he thought Lynch had more sense. The IRB as it stood was too sundered to be worth much. If the current Anti-Treatyite offensive was successful, then there might be a chance to such a reorganisation, but in which case the victorious party would have no need for an IRB of any kind anyway.

A second reply from O’Donoghue almost a month later, on the 29th of December, saw him in a more reflective and agreeable mood. He apologised for his curt tone from before, blaming it on his poor health at the time. Now he agreed with Lynch’s original points: that the IRB should be maintained to continue the fight for the Republic, and that in order for this to happen, the rotten and disloyal elements would have to be purged. In addition, the influence of the IRB would have to be extended to include the “young virile Separatist and Republican elements” as opposed to the “fogey” members that O’Donoghue held responsible for the disarray.

O’Donoghue was less sure about Lynch’s proposal to call a meeting for the Supreme Council. He feared that the pro-Treaty members already formed a majority who would stonewall any further arguments against the Treaty. It was, after all, as O’Donoghue admitted, the traditional IRB policy to use any concession by Britain as stepping-stone towards eventual Irish independence, and O’Donoghue was honest enough to doubt that his side had any good counter-arguments.

A more promising alternative would be to make a demand at a Supreme Council meeting – and this demand could be used as an excuse for getting the meeting agreed in the first place – for a reassembling of the complete society, with elections for a new Supreme Council by the Circles that made up the grassroots of the IRB.

O’Donoghue did not think the current Council could refuse such a demand and even if it did, the Anti-Treatyite faction would be justified in going ahead with such elections anyway, elections that O’Donoghue had no doubt would result in a Supreme Council more to their liking.

This was a more ambitious overhaul than Lynch’s, which was concerned only with the Supreme Council. O’Donoghue’s vision encompassed the whole of the IRB, a vision entirely in keeping with its Constitution, which was at pains to ensure that the leadership was a representative one.

As a side issue, such an election could also serve a secondary function as a way of ascertaining which of the Circles on paper actually existed. Keeping a society in the dark could be as much of a nuisance to those inside as it was to its opponents.[12]

Liam Deasy

Liam Deasy

O’Donoghue admitted the difficulty in implementing such a grand scheme in the present war conditions, and was at a loss for a solution unless the opportunity of another truce presented itself. Nonetheless, Deasy was taken with O’Donoghue ideas without being put off by the latter’s doubts. Reporting back to Lynch, Deasy doubted the adjourned meeting could be reconvened, as Lynch as suggested, repeating O’Donoghue’s anticipation that the Supreme Council would just block it.

But the call for the meeting should be made all the same, with the County Centres made aware of it. If the Supreme Council were to stymie it as expected, the County Centres could act as a temporary Council in its place until the IRB was sufficiently reoriented to hold elections for a fresh leadership. Deasy’s concern was for when, not if, this could be carried out.

Deasy ended his discussion on the topic in his letter with a request for Lynch for the names of the IRB officers in the southern area outside of South Munster – parts Deasy was evidently foggy on – in order to pass these ideas onto them.[13]

The End

There was to be no further correspondence relating to the ideas by Lynch, Deasy and O’Donoghue to take back the IRB, or, at least, none that has survived. Not that it would have made much difference in the end, as Free State forces simply steamrolled the opposition into submission. Lynch was killed on April 1923, five months after he had first aired his intention to re-establish the honour of the IRB as he saw it.

O’Donoghue had made the point in his first reply that if the Anti-Treatyites were to win, reforming the IRB would become an unnecessary endeavour. The Free State was to prove the truth of that initial assessment, though not in the way he had intended.

The new IRA Executive after Lynch was to be of a very different mindset to Lynch in regards to his “splendid historic organisation.” There was a meeting of eleven County Centres held on the 2nd of November 1924, eighteen months after the Civil War had officially ended. Of the eleven Centres who had been summoned, four were absent; in one case, because the man had recently died.

The Brigadier-General read out the decision of the IRA Executive for the remaining IRB Circles within the IRA to disband. From then on, the IRA alone would be sufficient, and the use for a secret society had ceased. When it came to fulfilling the role of an underground army for a republican Ireland, the post-Civil War IRA would need or brook no distractions.

There was no amendment or counter-proposal, but each of the seven Centres was anxious to state his personal view. Three agreed that the IRB had outlived itself. One also agreed that the Organisation should be disbanded but with the caveat of it being re-established at a future time if necessary.

Three disagreed with the Executive’s decision. The IRB should instead be reformed – in an unknowing echo of the late Liam Lynch – and if properly controlled, it could still uphold the “National Tradition,” as one man put it. These views revealed the emotional attachment some of the members still had for their Brotherhood even after the trials of two wars. Another dissenter argued in favour of retaining the Brotherhood on the grounds of tradition, as it had represented the ‘physical force movement’ since the time of Wolfe Tone and even at the present, it had not ceased.

But it had. The Brigadier-General recommended that the County Centres present meet with the Circle Centres under their sphere of influence to inform them of the disbandment orders. The Circle Centres would in turn pass the message on the members of their Circles. The minutes of the meeting would be sent in circulars to the Circles who had not been represented at the meeting, including those in Britain and the United States.

The IRB had been designed under its constitution to be a compromise between a top-down and down-top structure: the leadership would decide on policy but the leadership would be chosen in part by the middle and lower tiers, ensuring a mixture of discipline and representation. Now the new command was having the final say, and the membership acquiesced. Although not, it was noted, without protest.[14]


The Irish Republican Brotherhood in its later years is a complex picture to put together but not an impossible one. Sources such as the correspondence between Liam Lynch, Liam Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue allow historians to see how senior and long-term members who opposed the Treaty struggled to regain control of the Organisation.

The initial plan by Lynch was to reopen an adjourned meeting and use it to remove the pro-Treaty members of the Supreme Council. O’Donoghue’s extension of this idea was to call for elections that would rehaul the IRB from top to bottom. Both proposals were in keeping with the IRB Constitution that strove to create a leadership that was representative of its membership.

Files from O’Donoghue’s time as a middle-tier organiser within the IRB reveal many grassroots members as being vehemently against the Treaty, giving weight to Lynch’s and O’Donoghue’s ideas on reforming the Supreme Council. They also show the IRB stagnating in the months before the Truce before thriving afterwards in confidence and numbers. Even when the IRB Circles in the anti-Treaty IRA were disbanded in 1924, there were still members who felt a strong affinity for Ireland’s longest-running republican society.


Originally posted on The Irish Story (27/04/2015)


See also:

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4



[1] National Library of Ireland (NLI), MS 31,240

[2] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The Story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976), p. 192

[3] O’Brien, Henry, (BMH / WS 1308), p.23-4 ; O’Meara, Seumas, (BMH / WS 1504), p. 53

[4] Ó Broin, pp. 198-9

[5] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin, Irish Press [1954]), p. 194

[6] Ibid, p. 194-5

[7] NLI, MS 31,233

[8] O’Donoghue, Florence (ed. Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006) pp. 58-60

[9] NLI, MS 31,237(1)

[10] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law, pp. 193-4 ; NLI, MS 31,244

[11] NLI, MS 31,237(2)

[12] NLI, MS 31,233

[13] Ibid

[14] NLI, MS MS 31,240



National Library of Ireland – Florence O’Donoghue Papers

MS 31,233

MS 31,237(1)

MS 31,237(2)

MS 31,240

MS 31,244


Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The Story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976)

O’Donoghue, Florence (ed. Borgonovo, John) Florence and Josephine O’Donoghue’s War of Independence (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006)

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Brien, Henry, W.S. 1308

O’Meara, Seumas, W.S. 1504

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

The Third Man

Séumas Robinson

The Third Tipperary Brigade was among the most prominent in the Irish War of Independence. Ernie O’Malley accredited it with having created the fighting spirit of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the first place, to the point of other units preferring to fight it out to the bitter end if surrounded, rather than a prudent withdrawal, in order to live up to the martial ideal of their Tipperary compatriots. Séumas Robinson was one of the three men O’Malley attributed with creating that bold, if troublesome, tradition, the others being Dan Breen and Seán Treacy.[1]

All three became legends in their own lifetimes. Breen’s memoir guaranteed his fame to new generations. Judging by its re-prints, it remains in popular demand as well as much-thumbed by historians. Treacy did not survive the War but the memory of his exploits earned him the attention of writers looking for an Achilles to their Homer.

In contrast, Robinson has been treated as the middle child of the three by historians. Worth a few page numbers in an index, maybe, but not much more than that, with little desire to better understand the part that he played.

Robinson’s role in the Third Tipperary Brigade was a difficult one, and one not easily appreciated by onlookers. As Brigade O/C, he was a middle-manager in the IRA: responsible for the behaviour of his subordinates who did not always respect him, while answerable to his superiors who, in the words of O’Malley, “admired but…did not like him.”[2]

It is to explore these complicated, sometimes contradictory, feelings inspired by this complex, driven man that this article aims to do.

First Impressions

The Third Tipperary Brigade was formed in October 1918, based in the southern part of the county, with Robinson elected as Brigade O/C, Treacy as Vice Commandant, and Breen as Quartermaster. According to Breen in his memoir, Robinson’s promotion had been decided for him beforehand by himself and Treacy.

A rising star in the Volunteers, Treacy had been asked by Michael Collins to take the post of full-time Volunteer Organiser for Tipperary. However, Treacy was unsure as to whether he could commit to both that and the role of O/C. He was also concerned that neither he nor Breen had the social standing or the finances.

They were about to request that GHQ send them someone more suitable to take over, when they heard of a recent arrival to Tipperary who had been a participant in the Easter Rising, and who was currently working as a farmhand at the house of Eamon O’Dwyer, another organiser for the Tipperary Volunteers.

Seán Treacy

Upon meeting Robinson at O’Dwyer’s farmhouse, Treacy and Breen decided that he would be sufficient for the part. As Robinson was a newcomer to Tipperary and dependant on his farmhand work for money, he was a strange choice if social standing and finances were so important.

A few days later, Breen and Treacy met Robinson again at O’Dwyer’s and asked him if he would agree to take the post. Robinson heard them out while busy milking. When he was done with that, instead of staying to talk, Robinson took the milk-pall and left, saying only over his shoulder that he would be prepared to do whatever they asked of him but he had to get back to his job. Robinson was later elected as O/C on Breen’s proposal which Treacy seconded. The man of the hour was absent as Robinson was serving out a sentence in Belfast jail.[3]

Robinson could hardly have been thrilled to read of himself as a bumptious drone who had accepted a figurehead O/C post that he had otherwise been indifferent to. In his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Breen went further in describing Robinson’s intended part to have been that of a ‘stooge’ or ‘yes-man.’[4]

Left to Right: Séumas Robinson, Seán Treacy, Dan Breen, Michael Brennan


Breen’s version is supported in part by that of another Brigade member, Thomas Ryan, who also attributed Robinson’s rise to the prestige of his 1916 record and to the behind-the-scenes prompting of Treacy. While Robinson held the title, Ryan was in no doubt that it was Treacy who held the power. While not present at the election, Ryan suspected that it had been Treacy who had suggested Robinson in the first place.[5]

This belief is corroborated by someone who did attend the election: Edmond McGrath. According to McGrath, Treacy turned down offers of the command in favour of Robinson, whose praises Treacy sang to all concerned. Other than giving Treacy, not Breen, the leading role in pushing for Robinson, McGrath’s account tallies with Breen’s.

Dan Breen

However, Breen did wildly exaggerate Robinson’s status as an outsider. Though McGrath did not know Robinson personally at the time of the election, he was already aware of the considerable time Robinson had spent in organising the Volunteers. Michael Davern went as far as attributing the considerable growth of the Brigade to Robinson’s energy.[6]

Treacy’s desire for another man at the O/C helm can be explained by a need to delegate his workload, a task he would not have entrusted to someone he thought incapable of it. By the time of mid-1920, the two had become, in the opinion of Ernie O’Malley, an “ideal combination” (not least in finding ways to tease O’Malley).[7]

In underestimating Robinson’s qualifications and experience, Breen was being either catty or woefully uninformed.

Eamon O’Dwyer

A native of Belfast, Robinson had grown up in Glasgow and had joined the branch of the Irish Volunteers there. In 1916, he was told to report to Dublin for the upcoming Easter Rising. Despite its failure and his consequential imprisonment, his participation and the contacts he made in jail were to stand him in good stead in the years to come.

Post-prison, Robinson moved to Tipperary to help organise the Volunteers there. As far as he was concerned, the only place for him now was Ireland. Returning to Belfast, however, did not seem to have been of interest to him. Besides, he had already made a contact in Tipperary through a prison acquaintance: Eamon O’Dwyer.[8]

O’Dwyer was by then a veteran activist in South Tipperary, having been involved in a daisy-chain of nationalist societies such as the IRB, the Irish Volunteers, and the Gaelic League. A quiet, behind-the-scenes player, O’Dwyer was content to work among the grassroots to ensure the continuation of his beloved movement.[9]

This work included talent-spotting Robinson for the Brigade. The two of them had shared many discussions in Reading Jail on what they would do when free. O’Dwyer had aired his dream of creating a community centre for Irish nationalism. Robinson loved the idea, and readily accepted the offer to come and help out.[10]

Robinson arrived at O’Dwyer’s newly acquired house in Kilshenane, Co. Tipperary, on January 1917, in the midst of a snowstorm.[11] If Robinson was going to be staying in Ireland for the upcoming fight, he might as well go to where he was wanted.

Honesty, Hustle and Zeal

The priority of the Volunteers in the years after the Rising was the acquisition of weapons, largely by robbery. As part of this, Robinson and O’Dwyer led a break-in at the house of a British army major who lived locally, where they were confronted by an irate major and his female secretary. A firm believer in civilian property rights, Robinson offered to let the secretary show them around the house while searching for weapons to ensure that nothing else was taken.[12]

Robinson earned his keep at Kilshenane House as a farmhand. A city slicker, he made up for his lack of rural know-how with “honesty, hustle and zeal.”[13] It was fortunate that he had these virtues in abundance, for his work often left something to be desired. The resulting ribbing over one disastrous attempt to tackle up a donkey lasted long after Robinson was made Brigade O/C, which he took in good humour.[14]

Robinson also spent time back in prison for his involvement in the Volunteers. These periods of detention at His Majesty’s pleasure may have been inconvenient, but they did give his peers the chance to see his implacable character up close. At Stafford Gaol, he was remembered as a “small, little man of steel with the russet stubble and the shy, retiring manner” who, within days, became known to staff and inmates for his courteous but firm refusal to sign any of the prison paperwork put before him.[15]

Stafford Gaol

If some of his colleagues would find him irritating in the years to come, for now it was enough that he annoyed the enemy.


On 21 January, 1919, Robinson, Treacy and Breen were part of a team that ambushed a cart of gelignite on its way to Soloheadbeg quarry. Escorting the cart were two constables of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) and, in the resulting confrontation, both were shot dead.

Site of the Soloheadbeg ambush

Not everyone in the revolutionary movement was overly impressed with the deed. Breen bitterly recalled the cold-shouldering from otherwise ardent republicans he and the others received in the aftermath.[16] Nonetheless, the ambush has been established as the official start of the War of Independence. Much has been written about the ambush; its importance here is how its two main participants, Breen and Robinson, both took the opportunity in their later accounts to belittle the other.

In Breen’s memoir, the details of the ambush were worked out between him and Treacy, with what Robinson might have thought being unimportant.[17] Breen went further in his BMH Statement in saying that Robinson had not been consulted at all about the ambush plans, and that neither he nor Treacy had told Robinson about their agreed plan to shoot the policemen whatever happened.

This was not because of distrust, but because they did not think it was any of his business to know – an extraordinary thing to say about the Brigade O/C. Robinson did not join the rest of the party in their stakeout of the prepared ambush site until a couple of days before the ambush took place, meaning he could have missed it entirely had the gelignite escort came earlier, and he was so far removed from the action that he did not learn that the RIC constables had been killed until he almost back home.[18]

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary

In Robinson’s account, needless to say, he was heavily involved in the ambush, in its planning and the execution. In this, Robinson is supported by other accounts. Michael Davern, later acting O/C of the Brigade, remembered seeing Robinson ten days before the ambush “elated with obviously suppressed excitement” at what promised to be the first Brigade operation. Anxious for its success and for people he could trust, Robinson invited Davern to join. Davern pleaded off but was able to mobilise four others instead. Like Treacy, Robinson was not adverse at delegating.[19]

One of these four, Patrick O’Dwyer, described who Breen and Treacy emerged from hiding to challenge the RIC escort to halt, with himself and Robinson grabbing at the reins of the cart-horse, before the constables attempted to open fire and were fatally shot instead, neatly matching Robinson’s record of the event. According to O’Dwyer, one of the policemen had been aiming his carbine at either him or Robinson before he was shot, making it clear that Robinson was risking his life as much as anyone.[20] Breen’s portrayal of Robinson as a mere tag-along must be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

Robinson was not much more complimentary towards Breen. The party was lying in wait for the escort when Breen became agitated and impatient to rush out as soon as he could, prompting Robinson to make a mental note “that that man should never be put in charge of a fight.”[21]

Michael Collins

Michael Collins

Both Robinson and Breen would insist later that the Soloheadbeg ambush had not been intended to be a simple robbery, but to provoke the public mood into war. If so, they got their wish. The ambush, along with the dramatic rescue of their captured colleague Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station, made the situation in South Tipperary too tense for Robinson, Treacy and Breen. Together, they left to take refuge in Dublin. Whatever Robinson thought of Breen and vice versa, they were to be stuck with each other for a while.

In Dublin, Robinson was to make the acquaintance of Michael Collins. It was not to be a harmonious working relationship. What aggrieved Robinson most was the failure of the first planned assault on Lord French, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Collins assigned Robinson and Treacy to the last street corner before Dublin Castle on the route Lord French was to take from Dún Laoghaire. Should Lord French have survived the assassination attempts set up along the way, Robinson and Treacy were to ensure that the job was finally done.

Lord French

After waiting until the latest estimated time Lord French was supposed to come, Robinson and Treacy saw instead Collins and a number of other senior officers walking towards them. Collins laughingly told the pair that Lord French was not coming after all. As far as Robinson was concerned, Collins had set up a dummy attack in the presence of other Volunteer leaders in order to give the impression of himself as the one leading the fight in the field.[23]

Robinson returned to Tipperary, refusing to join in any of the other attempts on Lord French’s life. The relationship with Breen also worsened. To Breen’s dismay, Robinson was no longer as amenable as before, to the extent of him issuing countermanding orders to those Treacy and Breen had already given to the Brigade. If Robinson had been intended to be a puppet, then he was becoming one determined to pull his own strings.[23]

It took both Treacy and Breen to persuade him to return to Dublin for what turned out to be the one assassination attempt that was followed through. Lord French survived, the only fatality being that of one of the attackers, Martin Savage, whose death affected Robinson deeply at the time, telling the news to others in a “broken voice.”[24]

Martin Savage

Robinson’s impression of Collins as self-serving at others’ expense stayed with him. Three years later, Robinson was denouncing Collins during the Treaty debates in the Dáil as someone who had taken no risks but had urged others to do so.[25]

The dislike was reciprocated. Shortly after his signing of the Treaty, Collins ruefully joked to Eamon O’Dwyer that bringing Robinson to Tipperary had been O’Dwyer’s worse mistake.[26]

Ernie O’Malley

Another GHQ mover-and-shaker whose acquaintance Robinson met was Ernie O’Malley. Robinson and Treacy first met him in Tipperary town, May 1920, at an officers’ class O’Malley was running; he was on one of his periodic trips across the country to better organise the various brigades. This time it was the turn of South Tipperary, which was the scene of a strong British military presence; Robinson and Treacy had had to fight their way through an enemy patrol on route to Tipperary town.[27]

O’Malley’s and Robinson’s memories of each other were generally respectful. The working relationship was comfortable enough for O’Malley to wish that Robinson had been made Commander of the First Southern Division instead of Liam Lynch.[28] For Robinson, O’Malley was a welcome change from the usual armchair generals who made up GHQ.[29]

Ernie O’Malley

The two men had much in common. Both had literary tastes and aspirations, though it was only O’Malley who went the extra step and became known as a writer. Both were well-travelled throughout Ireland. Both were thinkers and organisers but unafraid to risk their lives in a fight. Both were serious-minded, hard-working revolutionaries, but who could be considered aloof and uninspiring by their subordinates.

Both ended up taking the Anti-Treaty side in the Civil War, an event Robinson had inadvertently predicted when discussing the newfangled IRA oath of allegiance with O’Malley and Treacy. Robinson had disapproved of the oath in how in it transferred authority from the army to Dáil, which might in the future accept something less than a republic. O’Malley and Treacy had laughed at the absurdity. Three years later, the Civil War would break out on that very issue. Robinson might have struck O’Malley as a bit of an Eeyore but, in this case, he had been a Cassandra.[30]

The Man Who Was Not There?

Together, Robinson, O’Malley and Treacy helped spearhead a series of coordinated attacks by the Third Tipperary Brigade on RIC barracks in South Tipperary. Not all of these were successful but they showed the ability of the Brigade to carry out sustained operations, a discipline nurtured by Robinson and Treacy, and a testament to their combined leadership.

Two of these assaults, on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks, are particularly noteworthy. Breen claimed in his memoir to have participated in them both. Robinson was to repeatedly insist in his BMH Statement that Breen had not even been present and had lied in writing that he had in order to inflate his reputation.[31]

Hollyford RIC Barracks, Co. Tipperary

A possible tie-breaker in this controversy is Ernie O’Malley, who helped lead the attacks on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks. O’Malley wrote accounts of his own, first in his 1936 memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, and later a series of articles in the mid-1950s that were published under Raids and Rallies.

In O’Malley’s accounts of the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, Breen does not appear in either. Had such a well-known figure like Breen been present at either Hollyford or Drangan, it would have been strange for O’Malley to have not made a mention of it, like he did of Breen’s presence at the assault on the Rearcross barracks, which Robinson did not deny.[32]

Thus we must tentatively conclude that Breen did lie about having been present at the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, and that Robinson was entirely correct in this.


The extent in which Robinson held authority in his position as Brigade O/C was questioned by contemporaries. One such was Thomas Ryan, a witness to much that went on in the Brigade and a member of the second of the two Flying Columns which had been formed in late 1920.

What Ryan had to say about Robinson’s leadership after the founding of the Columns is worth quoting at length:

From the time the Columns began operations, Robinson remained in and about the Brigade Headquarters…taking no active part in the work of the Columns, and so was not regarded by the men of the Columns as having any effective control of them…From this, it may be seen that we looked upon Robinson’s position as Brigade Commander as purely nominal.[33]

This passage has been cited as proof that, as a leader, Robinson was aloof and uninvolved. However, Ryan was talking from the perspective of someone who was part of a very particular type of fighting unit, and his comments should be taken to reflect the changing nature of the IRA as the War progressed rather than Robinson’s leadership as a whole.

IRA Flying Column of the Third Tipperary Brigade

There was still much to do for the rest of the Brigade, over which Robinson continued to act as a hands-on O/C. In February 1921, Robinson was present with an ambush party alongside a railway embankment to catch a troop train. When the train did not arrive, Robinson gave a lecture before the men dispersed on the need for more activity for the War.[34]

During the Truce, in the expectation that the ceasefire would be temporary, Robinson funded an (ultimately failed) attempt to purchase from Germany the type of weapons, like trench mortars, that would help crack the nut that had been frustrating the IRA: British army garrisons.[35] Whatever the Columns thought of him, there was still a war to be fought, and he intended to continue doing his part.

Group photo of the Cashel Company, as part of the Third Tipperary Brigade (note the pistol in the man standing in the middle)

Roads Not Taken

However, it does seem that Robinson struggled with maintaining the respect of his subordinates. Even Michael Davern, who was close enough to Robinson to introduce himself as Robinson’s right-hand man, had no compunction about talking back to him in a row over sloppy watchmen whom Davern had been responsible for.[36]

Another close colleague who did not automatically defer to Robinson was Eamon O’Dwyer. O’Dwyer’s discontent with the turn the revolution had taken was made embarrassingly public after the death of Seán Treacy in a shoot-out in Dublin in October 1920. Found on Treacy’s body was a letter by O’Dwyer complaining about the IRA use of ambushes, which quickly became grist for the British propaganda mill. Asked by Robinson to investigate O’Dwyer as a possible malcontent, Robinson stood by his friend, reporting O’Dwyer back as a man of integrity.[37]

Photo of Seán Treacy, taken moments before his death in Dublin

It was a generous act of loyalty on Robinson’s part, for O’Dwyer had also been actively undermining the war effort that was Robinson’s responsibility to maintain. O’Dwyer had been receiving calls from the families of Volunteers who were participating in the ambushes that had become the IRA tactic of choice, pleading for O’Dwyer to withdraw their men out of harm’s way. Concerned as to how much longer the War could be maintained anyway, O’Dwyer increasingly acceded to their wishes, and recalled fighting men back to their homes. When Robinson came to his house for an explanation, an angry and weary O’Dwyer refused to budge on the issue.[38]

Humane as O’Dwyer’s actions may have been, he was making Robinson’s job a harder one, with Robinson lacking the iron to discipline or dismiss his friend. It was a weakness in Robinson’s nature that Thomas Ryan noted and regretted. For all his disregard of Robinson as a leader, Ryan still respected him for his intelligence. Had the men in the Columns taken Robinson’s advice more often, and had Robinson made more of an effort to bond with them, then “they might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.” But the fault in why they did not was due, in Ryan’s opinion, to Robinson not possessing a “more forceful character.”[39]

Seán Hogan

An example of one of these roads-not-taken was the choice of Seán Hogan as a Column Commander. Robinson had wanted Ryan in the role instead, and tried to persuade Ryan to put himself forward, but Ryan, content that Hogan would be suited for the role, refused. When Hogan proved to lack the necessary aggression to properly lead a Column, Robinson’s misgivings came back to haunt Ryan.[40]

As with the IRA oath of allegiance and its future repercussions, it was a case of Robinson understanding a situation better than anyone else but lacking the ability to lead people who did not already want to be led.

Maintaining Discipline

The raids and rallies that have dominated the public perception of the War were only a facet in a wider picture. There was the intelligence war, with Volunteers urged to be on constant watch for informants. Robinson supervised the execution by shooting of an unmasked spy. This was a relatively straightforward case of an enemy agent tricked into blowing his own cover.[41]

Less obvious was the request made to Robinson by a Mid-Tipperary officer for permission to drive out a local family, the Hunts, so that their land could be divided up between Volunteers. As an afterthought, it was argued that, as a Protestant, Mrs de Vere Hunt, was too much of a potential spy. Robinson was not one to fall for such clumsy sectarian posturing, and instead gave orders that the Hunts were not to be troubled. Some months later, Mrs Hunt would prove the rumours entirely wrong by passing on information to the Volunteers from British officers who had dined at her house.[42]

Thurles, Co. Tipperary

About midsummer of 1920, Robinson felt the need to issue a request to his Brigade members (an order would have been too hard to enforce) that anyone caught inside a house where civilians were living should wait until outside before shooting. To Robinson’s dismay, many of his men “thought that the civilian population was at best a secondary consideration.” In response to this disturbingly blasé attitude, Robinson did his best to prevent the worst from happening.[43]

His concern for civilians in the crossfire caused him to veto a proposal to raze five houses of “wellknown Unionists” in retaliation to the blowing up of houses by Crown forces in May 1921. Robinson’s stated reason was a refusal to stoop to enemy level. That people uninvolved in the War might have suffered may have also been a reason for Robinson’s reticence. After all, terms such as ‘Unionist’ were used rather liberally by Volunteers, often to indicate anyone who was a convenient target.[44]

Cattle-Raids and Rallies

Respect for civilian rights and property did not extend to the ‘IRA levy’ which was carried out on local farmers. Michael Davern was involved in the seizing of cattle belonging to ‘Unionists’ who had failed to pay the “very small” amounts demanded. Any money obtained in this process was intended to go into Brigade funds.[45] However, not every Volunteer was above exploiting this revolutionary racket for personal gain, a human failing that Robinson was not naïve about.

Near the end of July 1921, a court-martial was arranged for several Volunteers caught cattle-rustling. Robinson presided over the improvised court which found the defendants guilty. As for sentencing, the death penalty was suggested, though Robinson was persuaded against this on the basis that it might undermine Brigade morale. Instead, the considerably less severe punishment of supervised unpaid work was issued.[46]

IRA members standing to attention

As law and order collapsed throughout Ireland, the IRA brigades found themselves in the position of the authorities they had been fighting against. Brigade commanders were obligated to fill the vacuum they had helped create. Robinson took this new role of improvised policeman as seriously as he had taken that of local warlord, determined to curb the excesses of his subordinates. However badly the civilian populace of South Tipperary suffered from the War of Independence, it may have been much worse without the standards set by Robinson.


Séumas Robinson was elected O/C for the Third Tipperary Brigade, partly on the urging of Séan Treacy, but also on the basis of his participation in the Easter Rising and his considerable activism for the South Tipperary Volunteers. From there, he set about helping to create one of the more prominent brigades in the War of Independence.

A complex man, capable of the extremes of warm camaraderie and unreasoning hatred, Robinson worked with many of the leading figures in the revolution: with Michael Collins he had nothing but undisguised contempt for, Ernie O’Mally a respectful working relationship, Seán Treacy a fruitful partnership, and Eamon O’Dwyer unqualified loyalty even when O’Dwyer undermined him.

Robinson expected much from his subordinates, and did his best to rein in their baser desires, while sometimes struggling to elicit respect from them. A renowned brigade, a determination to fight for what he saw as a just cause and a respected civilian populace were the hallmarks of this proud, principled and often prickly man.


First posted on The Irish Story (17/05/2014)


See also:

Demagogue: Séumas Robinson and the Lead-up to the Civil War, 1922

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson



[1] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 432

[2] O’Malley, p. 183

[3] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), pp. 21-2, 30

[4] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), p. 21

[5] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  p. 116

[6] McGrath, Edmond (BMH / WS 1393), p. 6 ; Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 10

[7] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, p. 180

[8] Robinson (BMH / WS 1721), p. 67

[9] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 54-55

[10] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1403), pp. 62-3

[11] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 3-4

[12] Ibid, p. 25

[13] Ibid, p. 4

[14] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 7

[15] Augusteijn, Joost. From Public Defiance To Guerrilla Warfare: The Experience of Ordinary Volunteers in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996), p. 190

[16] Breen, My Fight for Irish Freedom, p. 40

[17] Ibid, p. 31-32

[18] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), pp. 21-23

[19] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 15

[20] O’Dwyer, Patrick H. (BMH / WS 1432), p. 11 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 28-29

[21] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 28

[22] Ibid, pp. 49-50

[23] Breen, Dan  (BMH / WS 1739), p. 26

[24] Lynch, Michael (BMH / WS 511), p. 82

[25] Ó Muirthile, Seán. UCDAD, Richard Mulcahy Papers,P7a/209(2), p. 85

[26] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), p. 95

[27] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, p. 179

[28] Ibid, p. 432

[29] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p.39

[30] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp. 182-3

[31] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 87 as an example

[32] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom, pp. 107-110 (Hollyford), pp. 112-118 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound, pp.  189-195 (Hollyford), pp. 200-203 (Drangan)

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011), pp. 21-41 (Hollyford), pp. 42-60 (Drangan)

[33] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  pp. 116-117

[34] Keane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1300), pp. 5-6

[35] Beaumont, Seán (BMH / WS 709), p. 6

[36] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), pp. 33, 45

[37] Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006), pp. 116-7

[38] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), pp. 83-4

[39] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783),  p. 117

[40] Ibid, p. 32, 79-80

[41] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 114-5

[42] Ibid, pp. 35-36

[43] Ibid, p. 57

[44] Davern, Michael (BMH / WS 1348), p. 58

[45] Ibid

[46] Keating, James (BMH / WS 1220), pp. 13-15



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Seán, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1739

Davern, Michael, WS 1348

Keane, Patrick, WS 1300

Keating, James, WS 1220

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGrath, Edmond, WS 1393

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1403

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1474

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783


Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006)

Augusteijn, Joost. From Public Defiance To Guerrilla Warfare: The Experience of Ordinary Volunteers in the Irish War of Independence 1916-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1996)

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

O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Malley, Ernie. Raids and Rallies (Cork: Mercier Press, 2011)

Other Material

Ó Muirthile, Seán. UCDAD, Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7a/209(2)

Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921


On the 21st of April 1921, Patrick Kane, an adjutant in the Carlow IRA Brigade, received news of the worst kind and hurried to where the Brigade O/C Eamon Malone was staying. Kane’s expression alone was enough for Malone, who had been settling down with a cup of tea, to ask: “What disaster has happened now?” It was an apt response to a catastrophic intelligence failure and a crushing defeat.[1]

From its formation in 1917 and the triggering of the War of Independence in early 1919, the Carlow Brigade had struggled with the same difficulties that had beset many of the others throughout the country: maintaining manpower and morale against constant shortages of weapons and ammunition, while surviving the attentions of an entrenched British army and the ever-present Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC).

Auxiliary RIC on a Crossley tender

The Brigade responded with a cautious approach, with planned operations cancelled at the first hint of unexpected difficulty. For example, in June 1920 a three-man team from the Tullow Company was to meet up with their commanding officer before holding up the RIC at the nearby barracks, but when the officer failed to show, the attempt was called off.[2] Similarly, a proposed assault by several battalions on Bagenalstown Barracks in early 1921 was aborted when poor coordination and planning made the possibility of success unlikely.[3]

Crown forces adopted a wariness of their own: the men of the 1st battalion lay in ambush along the back road between Carlow town and Bagenalstown for an anticipated enemy patrol, but after hours of waiting the target never came.[4] Likewise, an attack planned by the 4th battalion in Borris in September 1920 was thwarted when the targeted RIC patrol broke its usual routine and did not come as expected.[5]

Forming the Column

It was to break this impasse that the flying column was formed as a small, dedicated body of men who would be well-armed and mobile enough to take the fight to the enemy. As many of its members were already on the run, they would not have had to adjust their lives by much. Leading the column was Laurence O’Neill, a Tipperary émigré who had already held a number of ranks in the Carlow Brigade and was thus considered experienced enough.

IRA members

The newly established column began its training in the area near Killeshin, on the borders of Leix and Kilkenny. The hilly and uninviting terrain would help deter unwanted attention while the column based itself in an empty farmhouse, relying on local people for food.

It was at this time that a Black-and-Tan named James Duffy was shot at while leaving a pub in plainsclothes and with a civilian companion, Harry James. Duffy was killed and James badly wounded. The assumption was that Duffy had been investigating the area with the other man as his guide and spy. It is unknown whether the men of the column had been the ones who had killed Duffy but, as they were residing nearby at the time, it is a strong possibility.[6]

Preparing the Column

The column had hoped to christen its campaign with an attack on Bagenalstown Barracks, which had only recently avoided an earlier assault without knowing it. The attack was to be in unison with men from the 4th battalion, with the 1st and 3rd battalions assisting in securing all roads to Bagenalstown in order to stave off any enemy reinforcements. As with many of the proposed operations by the Carlow Brigade, it was cancelled, this time due to the inopportune arrival of British reinforcements in Crossley lorries before the roads could be blocked, prompting the column and the battalions to prudently withdraw.[7]

According to Kane, the column planned another attack on Bagenalstown Barracks. But with the lack of explosives with which to breach its walls and in the absence of an expert to make them, the plan was yet again called off, making Bagenalstown one of the luckiest barracks in the War. However, it is uncertain as to whether Kane was confusing this foiled attempt in his Statement with the one above.[8]

The column moved north to the townland of Mullinagown on the 19th of April, in the territory of the 4th battalion of the Carlow Brigade, where it billeted in an unoccupied house. From there, the column intended to join up with its North Wexford counterpart, then in the neighbouring Blackstairs Mountains, and sent two scouts ahead to make contact, but fog made that task impossible and ensured that the Column would remain by itself.[9]

Losing the Column

What happened two days later was headlined in The Carlow Nationalist as: ENGAGEMENT IN CO. CARLOW – FIVE STATED TO BE KILLED. Quoting a report from the British military GHQ:

A patrol of Crown forces surprised an armed party of civilians drilling near Ballymurphy, County Carlow, on Monday evening. An engagement ensued resulting in some (believed to be five) of the rebels being killed, two wounded and six captured.

Eleven rifles, one shot-gun, several revolvers, a quantity of rifle and dun-dun ammunition.

The Crown forces suffered no causalities.[10]

In fact, four had been killed. One member of the aforementioned armed party, Michael Fay, had previously served in the British army for three and a half years, having seen action in France. He had lived with his parents in Rathvilly for some years after moving there from Dublin, and was described by the article as “very popular in the district.”

His funeral was to receive a considerable turnout by Volunteers, Cumann na mBan and ex-servicemen. In keeping with the diverse range of people Fay had known, his tricolour-draped coffin was borne by both Volunteers and ex-servicemen.

Fay was the only one of the dead who had been definitely connected with the day’s fighting. Of the other three, all unnamed in the article, one had been an old man of sixty-two. It was unknown if the remaining two had been with the armed party, but they had been running with them at the time of their deaths.

On a seemingly unrelated note, another article in the newspaper was titled: SHOCKING AFFAIR NEAR MOUNTRATH – YOUNG MAN SHOT DEAD – ROBBERY THE ALLEGED MOTIVE. It was not a story that was obviously related to that of the previously described engagement, and was treated by the Nationalist as entirely separate. Only decades later would there be a direct connection made openly between the two.[11]

The Court-Martial of the Column

It would not be until July, over two months later, that the court-martial for the prisoners took place. Held in the Curragh, it centred on the testimony of an (unnamed by the attending Nationalist reporter) British officer who had been leading the Crown forces in the capture of the column. It is the only first-hand account of what happened. As it was tailored to be heard in court, it is far from a complete source, but it does provide a solid, step-by-step version of events.

The eight men in the dock were facing six separate charges relating to possession and use of illegal firearms, and so the testimony at the court-martial took the time to focus on details such as when the suspects were believed to have opened fire, the number of weapons found on the scene, the state of the guns as to whether or not they had been recently fired, and other points relating to the charges.[12]

Unfortunately, no surviving member of the Column submitted a Statement to the BMH, depriving historians of an insider’s perspective. The closest we have are the BMH Statements of Patrick Kane and Thomas Ryan, an intelligence officer in the 4th battalion, which flesh out a number of details. Neither was present at the scene, and both were presumably reliant on hearing about it from the survivors afterwards.

However, the two of them match each other and the court-martial account in such details as the Column being surprised as it was drilling in a field. Incredibly, no one in the Column had thought to post sentries. Historian William Nolan felt the need to offer “extenuating circumstances for their apparent negligence,” in that the Column men had been anticipating the arrival of a GHQ representative “and could reasonably expect the whole area to be on the alert.”[13]

Reasonably or otherwise, the Column members were to be very much mistaken in their complacency.

The Fight of the Column

The Crown force consisted of six soldiers and seven Black-and-Tans along with two officers, one senior and the other junior. Driving in on the scene on two Crossley lorries, the patrol rapidly disembarked and opened fire on the Volunteers, about 200-250 yards away, who fled without returning fire.


The Crown forces gave chase in two squads and, after 100 yards, the squad with the lead officer spotted the Column men moving along a hedge, presumably for the cover, and opened fire again. The lead squad advanced up a laneway where they re-joined the other group, catching sight of the suspects from time to time who were making no attempt at that stage to shoot back.

Upon reaching a certain point, the senior officer saw the IRA men split into two groups moving in opposite directions, at which point the Crown forces followed suit and continued the chase, one squad for each half of the Column. The lead British squad opened fire again, and the officer was sure that the suspects were returning fire this time, for he “could hear the crack of rifles which [he] knew did not come from behind [him].”

Emboldened by the poor aim of the enemy, the lead squad pressed on, coming across four of the suspects – Patrick Gaffney, Patrick Fitzpatrick, James and Michael Behan – lying on the ground with their hands up, their rifles discarded nearby, with two more men – Laurence O’Neill and Thomas Behan – in a similar position of submission. Upon taking these six men prisoner, the squad met up with the other, who had two prisoners of their own: Michael Ryan and William McKenna.

Two other Column members, William Gaffney and a Fitzpatrick (first name unknown) were able to escape in the confusion, making the total number of the column at the time of its loss to have been eleven men: eight captured, two escaped and one killed.[14]

Webley pistol

The captives were transported under guard to Borris Barracks on the Crossleys where O’Neill and McKenna received treatment for their injuries. The victorious patrol then returned to the scene of the fight and uncovered a number of rifles, Webley pistols and shotguns with their accompanying ammunition in the house next to the field where the suspects had been found drilling. Explosive substances and an unexploded bomb were also found in the house. Clearly, the column had been hoping to make up for its past failed attempt on Bagenalstown Barracks.

Michael Fay

Three dead men were found on the scene, according to the officer’s testimony, two in a house and the other in a field, the latter identified in court as Michael Fay. He had been killed by shotgun wounds, according to an earlier Court of Inquiries, though Thomas Ryan was to describe in his BMH Statement that Fay had been bayoneted to death while on the ground, already wounded from gunshots, so that “several parts of his hands and his teeth were scatted round.”[15]

This was to become a sensitive point for the senior officer under testimony, with him denying that he had seen any bayonet wounds on Fay’s body, either at the scene or later, upon being asked about it by the counsel for the defence, A. Wood. Sensing an opening, Wood pressed the officer over whether the wounds on Fay’s arm were caused by gunshots or a bayonet, with the officer maintaining the former.

When it was his turn to testify, the junior officer denied seeing how Fay died, only that the squad under his command had found Fay when he was already dead, the implication being that he had been killed at a distance in the firefight, and not up close while already wounded as the counsel was clearly implying.

Counting the Dead

Of the three other dead men, none were mentioned at the court-material, presumably because their deaths were not relevant to the trail of the accused. According to Thomas Ryan, two of them had been brothers, James and Peter Farrell, and both had been shot and bayoneted near where the Column had been overwhelmed.

In Ryan’s version, they were sowing corn in their field when the fight began, and had been attempting to reach the Column in order to warn them – to Ryan, that was the only explanation, as they would have had no other reason to go in that direction, it being opposite from their home. According to Patrick  Kane, both brothers had no relation to the fight and were innocent victims of circumstances.[16]

In either case, there was no question as to the harmlessness of the third bystander, identified by Thomas Ryan as 62-year-old Michael Ryan (no relation, presumably). According to Thomas Ryan, Michael’s son John was a Volunteer who was leaving home with IRA dispatches to his company captain when he was chanced upon by one of the patrol squads, who opened fire and forced him back in. Ignoring his son’s warning to stay inside, Michael Ryan went out for a bucket of water and was found dead by John at the pump with a bullet-wound to the face.[17]

It is unclear as to whether the Farrell brothers and Michael Ryan were killed deliberately, perhaps mistaken for members of the fleeing Column whose lack of uniform would have made unlucky civilians indistinguishable from combatants, or if they were gunned down by soldiers whose blood was up. Either way, the testimonies of the two officers at the court-martial, which strove to portray the conduct of themselves and their men as models of cool, dispassionate efficiency, only told part of the story.

Memorial to the Dead

The Fall-Out from the Column

Two days after the disaster of the Column, on the 23rd of April 1921, Michael Byrne, a man in his early 30s, was shot to death while returning home from visiting neighbours. The best motive that could be guessed at for anyone wanting harm on a member of a “very popular” farming family was robbery, as he had recently come into possession of £100 and was known to have kept the money on him.[18]

Writing over thirty decades later, both Patrick Kane and Thomas Ryan told of the death of a spy they blamed for exposing the Column to ambush and defeat. In Ryan’s BMH Statement, his name had been Finn, and he had led the British patrol to the site of the Column. Finn had disappeared shortly afterwards and, after initial failed attempts to find him by the IRA, had been captured and taken to an old house. From there he had escaped, and was heading for the safety of Borris Barracks when he was caught again and finally executed after an improvised trial. A large amount of money was said to have been found on him, presumably the reward for his spying.[19]

Kane’s version is broadly similar, in that a spy had guided the British to the Column, and afterwards had been captured and detained near Borris. It diverges from Ryan’s in that there had been no escape or second arrest, the spy’s name is not given, and in how the spy had been shot dead while trying to overcome his guard as opposed to executed. Strikingly, Kane gives the value of the money found on the dead man as £100, the same amount the Nationalist reported as being in the possession of Michael Byrne.[20]

It is possible, then, that Byrne was killed on the 23rd of April 1921 as a result of being suspected as the spy who had doomed the column. There are a number of problems with that theory, however:

  • Ryan got his name wrong, unless ‘Finn’ was a nickname.
  • The two days in between the wipe-out of the Column and Byrne’s death seems rather brief to fit in the drawn-out tale of capture, escape, recapture, trial and execution that Ryan offers.
  • That Byrne was en route from a social call to neighbours would indicate he did not drop out of sight immediately, as Ryan described, after the column’s loss.

Kane’s briefer account fits better into what it is already known from the Nationalist, though his description of spies travelling the countryside while dressed as tramps seems overly outlandish, considering how Byrne was a local man and presumably would have needed no excuse to be in the area.

Neither Ryan nor Kane give a reason as to why Byrne would have been suspected so quickly after the column’s end, despite both being well placed to have known, given Ryan’s rank as a battalion intelligence officer, and Kane’s work as an IRA mole in the Carlow post office amongst the hub of police reports and official mail.

The exact circumstances over Byrne’s death must thus remain a mystery. He may have been a spy, or suspected as one at a volatile time for the Carlow IRA. Or his death could have been over a robbery as originally reported, with Kane and Ryan confusing a death from decades ago as a causality of their war by the time they gave their Statements.


Due to a spirited defence by A. Wood, the eight men from the column were found not guilty at their court-martial of the first two charges arrayed against them: endangering the safety of Crown personnel by the discharge of firearms, and the aiding of such an act. The other four charges, all relating to the owning of contraband such as guns and explosives, were to be announced later.[21]

According to Kane, the prisoners ended up receiving lengthy prison sentences, though the forthcoming Truce would nullify all such judgements. The erstwhile column leader, Laurence O’Neill, would go on to marry the former fiancé of Dick McKee, the Dublin Brigade commandant killed on Bloody Sunday, and raise a family.[22]

Kane would recall Brigade O/C Eamon Malone’s distress at the loss of the rifles rather that of the men in the column. Kane was not unsympathetic – he too agreed with Malone’s assessment that the Carlow Brigade had the men to spare but not the equipment, certainly not enough for a successor column. There would be no further attempt at a flying column for the duration of the War.

That the column had been crushed so effectively with no loss to the enemy, despite the two sides being roughly even in numbers and weapons, inadvertently justified the cautious approach taken by the Brigade battalions. The unspoken view had been that head-on confrontations with British army or RIC forces would invite disaster, and there could be no better illustration of this than how the Carlow Brigade risked much in forming a column and lost accordingly.


Originally posted on The Irish Story (03/09/2014)

See also: Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921



[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 17-8

[2] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p.2

[3] Kane, pp. 13-4

[4] Doorley, Michael (BMH / WS 1509), p. 4

[5] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 9

[6] Kane, p. 16

[7] Doorley, pp. 4-5 ; Hynes, pp. 15-16

[8] Kane, p. 17

[9] Ibid, pp. 16-8 ; Ryan, pp. 7-8

[10] Carlow Nationalist, 23/04/1921

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid, 09/07/1921

[13] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 587

[14] Ryan, p. 11

[15] Ibid, p. 8

[16] Ibid ; Kane, p. 17

[17] Ryan, p. 7

[18] Carlow Nationalist, 23/05/1921

[19] Ryan, p. 9

[20] Kane, p. 18

[21] Hogan, Louise (17/05/2012) ‘Relatives wear 1916 medals with pride at Arbour Hill’, The Irish Independent (Accessed 03/08/2014)

[22] Kane, pp. 17-18



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Doorley, Michael, WS 1509

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442


Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970


Carlow Nationalist

Online Article

Hogan, Louise (17/05/2012) ‘Relatives wear 1916 medals with pride at Arbour Hill’, The Irish Independent (Accessed 03/08/2014)

To Not Fade Away: The Irish Republican Brotherhood, Post-1916

Every Dog Has its Day

Having organised and trained her manhood through her secret revolutionary organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood…patiently perfected her discipline, having resolutely waited for the right moment to reveal itself, she now seizes that moment…

(The Proclamation of the Republic, 1916)


The Easter Rising of 1916 was a triumphant debut for the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), whose creed of physical force republicanism had at last been vindicated. For years the group had toiled in the shadows to set such a scene, forced into a state of subterfuge by the attentions of a hostile state, and now its name was read out alongside the other participants whose combined efforts were set to create a new and free Ireland.

That these efforts collapsed after a week of fighting did not mean the end of the dream. The physical force methods that the IRB – or ‘the Organisation’ as insiders preferred – had pioneered were set to continue on through the rejuvenated Irish Volunteers, an electorally dominant Sinn Féin and the memories of the executed leaders of the Rising, almost all of whom had been the IRB’s own. That many members of these groups doubled as IRB men must have made continued Brotherhood dominance over the wider nationalist movement seem certain.

And yet even after a war that ended with the recognition of a separate Irish government, if not a wholly independent one, the group that had initiated the violent rejection of British rule in Ireland remained unloved and unappreciated. For the IRB there was to be no recognition from their fellow revolutionaries, no love from the masses who now lived in the state the IRB had helped to create, and in this new state, no place.

The Revolution Will Not Be Polled

The main fault-line between the IRB and many of its fellow revolutionaries was to be the Treaty, but the Organisation had been controversial even before that. A secret society had been all very well before the Rising, it was argued, but now that physical force republicanism had been taken up by the public bodies of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Féin, there was little need for its original advocates.

Eamon O’Dwyer, a prominent organiser for the nationalist cause in South Tipperary, summed these thoughts up when recalling the discussions he had had in prison with a number of other notable republicans in 1918:

It was generally our opinion that the need for the I.R.B. had practically ceased to exist, owing to the fact that the Irish Volunteers were now doing the I.R.B. work, that when an Irish Parliament was set up the Volunteers would come under its control. They, the Volunteers, would then be titled the army of Ireland and the continuation of the I.R.B. would not, therefore, be necessary.[1]

These sentiments had an impact, in an exodus of members who resigned or refused to re-join the Organisation. For O’Dwyer, it was a simple matter of continuing the same work as before, except now for the Tipperary Volunteers instead for the IRB. As far as he was concerned, there was little the IRB could do that not already being done by the Volunteers.

Somewhat mischievously, O’Dwyer recounted a story of the IRB Supreme Council sending someone to Tipperary to ask him to reconsider his leaving, only to be imprisoned in a barn by local Volunteers who mistook him for a British spy due to his furtive manner – useful for a secret society, not always for outside of one. Only of the intervention of a doubtlessly amused O’Dwyer saw his release.[2]

Éamon de Valera

Two of the most prominent individuals to shake the dust off their feet from the Brotherhood were Éamon de Valera and Cathal Brugha, both being alumni of the Easter Rising. De Valera’s resignation was unsurprising, as he had joined only weeks before the Rising upon discovering, to his horror, that his IRB-connected subordinates in the Volunteers knew more about the plans than he did – a testament to the influence the IRB had had in the Rising.[3]

Brugha was a different matter, going from a veteran member of the Organisation to one of its most outspoken opponents. One of his stated reasons for this volte-face was that the IRB had not turned out for the Rising, leaving the Volunteers to do the work.[4]

Brugha’s accusation of shirking prompted a census for numbers of the IRB members who participated in the Rising as opposed to those from the Dublin Volunteers. Apparently, the census found overwhelmingly in favour of an IRB turn-out compared to that from the Volunteers – for example, supposedly seventy-five IRB men turned out on Easter Monday compared to a mere twenty-five Volunteers. Whether or not one trusts the results of an in-house investigation, the IRB had clearly become a lightning-rod for controversy.[5]

Cathal Brugha

Significantly, another reason was Brugha’s reluctance to be part of a group that he considered under the sway of Michael Collins, even at that early date.[6] This was a suspicion not entirely without foundation, for Collins was considered by IRB insiders to be the main reason for the re-establishment of the IRB Supreme Council after the Rising, and held the position of secretary before becoming its president.[7]

The tension between Collins and Brugha was to mark much of the IRA GHQ throughout the War of Independence. Supporting Collins was his fellow IRB associate and IRA Chief of Staff Richard Mulcahy, with De Valera helping Brugha to form an anti-IRB counter-balance.

Whether personal issues played as much as a factor as that of secret societies is debatable. But in many ways GHQ was to be a microcosm of the tensions the IRB could provoke in the wider revolutionary movement.

Down but Not Out

Despite these post-Rising resignations, the IRB remained an active body. How active is a matter of debate. Séumas Robinson of the Third Tipperary Brigade asserted that the authority of the IRB at this time was “moribund where not already dead.”[8]

He left the IRB but not before attending a meeting in Dublin intended to revive the influence of the IRB within the Volunteers, an account that is both comical and scathing:

I saw young fellows with notebooks rushing round and about the ground floor (there were about 150 present) button-holing individuals with anxious whispers – “We must make sure that no one will be elected an officer of the Volunteers who is not a member of the ‘Organisation’” – as if that were something new or something we would be allowed to forget, and without adverting to the fact that that sort of thing would undermine the authority and efficiency of the whole Volunteer movement. Without waiting for the meeting to start officially I walked out in disgust thinking of Tammany Hall.[9]

Séumas Robinson

Robinson gave the address for the meeting at 44 Parnell Square but, unfortunately, not the date or names of any other attendees, making it hard to corroborate. One wonders if Michael Collins was one of these ‘young fellows with notebooks’.

For all of Robinson’s extravagant scorn and American comparisons, an alternative interpretation of this event could be that the IRB still had enough members with the energy and desire to continue its mission as prime mover towards Irish independence, even if it had to unashamedly infiltrate larger bodies like the Volunteers to do so.

The IRB desire for new recruits continued throughout the later years. Liam Deasy recalled a council of the South Munster IRB at Easter 1921, presided over by Michael Collins, where it was agreed to extend membership to Volunteers of proven worth.[10]

As late as November-December 1921, a similar decision was made at a conference in Limerick for the IRB branches – or ‘Circles’ in the IRB vocabulary – present to renew their drive for fresh initiates (as observed by the disgusted Ernie O’Malley, who had not been invited but gate-crashed the meeting anyway). Whatever the likes of O’Dwyer, Robinson or O’Malley may have thought or wanted, the IRB was there to stay.[11]

It was not always a case of the IRB members entering the Volunteers, for the reverse did also happen. Frank Henderson of the Dublin Volunteers decided to join the IRB around 1918-1919 on the grounds that since he saw that war was on the horizon and the Volunteers had been joined by post-Rising recruits of uncertainty worth, “membership would bind those in the organisation in the event of defections or attempts to compromise.”[12] This was after Henderson had already twice refused invitations to join, being sympathetic to Brugha’s concern, who told him in a conversation, that such a secret society would produce “conspirators but not soldiers.”[13]

As with De Valera before the Rising, Henderson’s reasons for IRB membership were pragmatic rather than passionate. Even with his doubts about the Brotherhood, he could recognise its value as backup.

Revolutionary Entrepreneurs

The IRB’s role in the War of Independence has been neglected by historians, to the point of the Organisation being dismissed as “in an advanced state of decay” by that time.[14] As the above examples have shown, the Organisation was in a state of anything but decay. This academic neglect is possibly due to how, for practical purposes, the IRB’s policy of armed resistance to British rule had become indistinguishable to that of the Volunteers/IRA in general, making it hard to tell where one began and the other ended.

That was the line Michael Collins took when responding to a letter of complaint in April 1920 from the Sligo Brigade complaining about IRB members participating in an unauthorised (by him) bank robbery, and demanding from Collins a clarification between the IRB and the Volunteers:

Arising out of your letter of the 4th inst. re attitude of Irish Volunteers and another organisation, you will notice that there is no difference between the aims and methods of the Irish Volunteer Organisation and the other one you mention.[15]

Michael Collins

Collins did not even mention the IRB by name in his reply, either out of habitual secrecy or to annoy the Sligo commandant, who could hardly have been reassured to have received such a cursory response. Whether Collins wanted to admit it or not, the IRB continued to be a factor in the years between the Rising and the Truce, though less than a case of its members acting on behalf of a countrywide society and more as another complication in already complicated local scenes.

Tom Hales had been an IRB member before the Rising. In the increasingly militant atmosphere afterwards he took to swearing into his IRB Circle the Volunteers he trusted, making the IRB and himself central to the revolutionary scene in West Cork. When, in 1919, the original Cork Brigade was divided into three, he was a natural choice of leader for the Third Cork Brigade.[16] Hales was later to brag that he had ‘made’ the Third Cork Brigade with the men he had personally sworn in.[17]

Tom Hales

Hales could be seen as something of a revolutionary entrepreneur, using a franchise to establish a local monopoly for himself rather than as an drone-like operative acting on behalf of the larger group. This was not unusual. The IRB provided the perfect outlet for individuals with ambition, energy and an enterprising zeal. Whether an IRB Circle was successful in a certain area could depend on finding the right person to promote it. In return, a successful IRB Circle could give such members like Tom Hales a good deal of local clout.

Seán Mac Eoin is another case in point. He had joined the IRB in 1914, but did not see any particular advantage from it until 1917, when Circles were properly established in Longford and he was elected to a senior position over them. The election of William Redmond in the Waterford 1918 by-election for the opposing Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) gave him his first chance to exercise his new-found authority. In response to the planned IPP victory celebrations, Mac Eoin, in his own words: “acting under the authority vested in me as Centre of the I.R.B, I proclaimed the celebrations and enforced the decision with the aid of the Volunteers.”[18]

While Mac Eoin was also in the Volunteers, and used that body to forcibly impose his decision, he felt entitled to decide in the first place from his IRB status. Also, he was not dependent on orders or instructions from above, acting as he was on his own initiative. Having suffered through his family being the targets of a Land League boycott, Mac Eoin must have relished the chance to play the local big man for once.[19]

Seán Mac Eoin

Conversely, an IRB Circle could suffer if it depended too heavily on a particular member. The success of the IRB in South Tipperary was largely because of the efforts of Eamon O’Dwyer. When he passed over the Organisation in favour of the Volunteers, the former’s influence there withered and died, and there was little the IRB Supreme Council, for all the grandiosity of its name, could do about it.

Feuds and Factions

Hales’ success brought him into conflict with his official superiors in the Volunteers, Terence MacSwiney and Tomás MacCurtain, especially the latter, who struggled to rein in unauthorised actions from within the Volunteers that he was technically in charge of.[20] It is possible that the premature deaths of both MacSwiney and MacCurtain, the former on hunger strike, the other murdered by ‘persons unknown’ (almost uncertainly off-duty RIC officers), prevented the tensions from worsening.

Not so for the Limerick City Battalion, which remained split post-1916 between IRB stalwarts headed by Donnachadh O’Hannigan and those under Liam Manahan, who wished to remain free from IRB influence.[21] In both of the cases in Cork and Limerick, there were other factors at play: Manahan, MacSwiney and MacCurtain had been blamed by their detractors for bloodlessly surrendering Volunteer armouries in the aftermath of the Rising’s failure, and there were class dimension between the white-collar workers under O’Hannigan and the more working-class men under Manahan.[22]

One could ask whether these divisions would have still happened if there had been no IRB at all. It did not seem to be a case of IRB members acting on orders from above. If anything, the IRB comes across as a decentralised organisation, one with a central leadership and a consistent ideology, but not necessarily with much control over or input into its Circles throughout the country.

But in Cork and Limerick that did not have to matter. The IRB may have been perhaps more a “badge of militancy than a well-defined organization”, but it could be potent enough badge to rally behind all the same.[23]

The Cork IRA was to continue on as an IRB bastion, with many of its leading alumni – Liam Lynch, Liam Deasy and Florence O’Donoghue, among others – being of the Organisation throughout the War of Independence. In not every county was the IRB so divisive for the local Volunteers/IRA. Even in the ones where it was, it may not have been the most divisive of local issues. Either way, the IRB throughout the War of Independence was to remain a significant factor, up to the time of the Treaty, if only as one to fall out over.

Suspicious Minds

And there was much to fall out over. As far as many contemporaries were concerned, the IRB’s defining role after the Rising had been that of the Treaty. For many who opposed the Treaty, it was an article of faith that the IRB had worked behind the scenes to force through its pro-Treaty agenda. That one of the Treaty signatories was Michael Collins, by then President of the IRB Supreme Council, gave this view a certain credence.

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925.jpeg
Ernie O’Malley

Ernie O’Malley, writing years afterwards, castigated Collins and the IRB for the Treaty, and unfavourably compared them to the executed heroes of 1916 who, he was sure, would never have done such a thing (the number of IRB men among said heroes being lost on him). For the most part, however, such criticisms tended to focus on the IRB in general at the exclusion of Collins, who remained a heroic figure to many.[24]

Frank Gallagher of the Dublin Volunteers was to mention the IRB a mere two times in his memoir The Four Glorious Years (under the penname of David Hogan), once to darkly inform his readers that the IRB “plainly had plans of its own that which were not those of an elected Government. The I.R.B. regarded as the primary authority in Ireland the Supreme Council of their own Secret Society. There were the seeds of calamity in that kind of attitude.”[25]

While the book did not venture beyond 1921 to cover the Civil War, a hint is enough for Gallagher to lay the blame: “What was to prove a tragedy later for the Volunteers, and for Ireland, was that a section of the I.R.B. continued its secret existence, and its struggle for control both of the Dail and of the Army.”[26]

The same penchant for secrecy that had allowed the Brotherhood to operate under the noses of Dublin Castle had left it open to suspicions of conspiracy and self-centredness. To Séumas Robinson, a leading Anti-Treatyite, the Brotherhood was a “sinister cabal” while somewhat contradictory dismissing it as having only a “nuisance value” from 1919 onwards.[27]

Arguments against the IRB could often be on the tenuous side. Ernie O’Malley bemoaned that “the IRB had driven Sinn Fein underground” by the time of the Civil War due to the party putting its energies into electioneering as opposed to, say, economics, without much explanation as to why the IRB should be held responsible. Was O’Malley truly surprised at a political party in a democracy taking part in the democratic process? Either way, no act was too villainous like that of electioneering to hang on the IRB’s door.[28]

Equally myopic on the issue was Seamus McKenna of the Belfast IRA who was of the opinion that many of the IRB men who supported the “ill-fated” Treaty did so on the Organisation’s instructions. He based this on his own experience of being advised to do so by an IRB Supreme Council member; a man who, in McKenna’s strong opinion, had “already compromised, and led others along the same path.”[29]

This same man – McKenna was uncertain as to his name – went against the Treaty several months later, raising the question of whether he had originally advocated for the Treaty on the IRB’s instructions or his own opinion, which later changed as opinions are wont to do.

Another of McKenna’s gripes was that the IRB promoted its own within the IRA regardless of incompetence (himself presumably not included), his case in point being Joe McKelvey of the Third Northern Division.[30] McKelvey was later executed by the Free State for fighting against the Treaty, suggesting that the situation was more complex than McKenna was willing to give it credit for. But McKenna was an embittered man, and the IRB provided the perfect villain for his narrative, as it did for the Anti-Treatyite one. As with Brugha and Robinson, the IRB’s sternest critics were often its former Brothers.

Herding Cats

The long-held charge that the Brotherhood had forced the Treaty through rests on the premise that the IRB could exercise enough control to do just that. Given how widespread it was through its Circles and how highly placed certain members like Michael Collins were in the wider revolutionary movement, it would seem at first glance that this could indeed have been so. This was certainly Ernie O’Malley’s view when he wrote of the IRB conference in November-December 1921 that he intruded upon, intending to shock his readers with his depiction of an insidiously spreading conspiracy covertly gathering fresh members.

But the expectation of the IRB leadership at this same meeting was that it would be the grassroots who would be doing the work in recruiting. There was no indication of any penalties if Circles neglected to do so or that the IRB had the means to impose any in the first place.

On closer inspection, the Organisation reveals itself to have been too decentralised, too dependent on its grassroots, and with branches too self-sufficient for it to be a convincing character in a conspiracy theory. The Supreme Council could only have dreamed of exercising the control that its enemies accused it of. Ultimately, it could only ‘control’ its members who were willing to go along with it anyway.

Back in the Limelight

Joseph M. Curran, in assessing the IRB at the time of the Treaty, dismissed the Brotherhood by then as obsolete and constituting “no real threat to either the British or Republican government.”[31] Another obituary is from Michael Hopkinson, in that far from being a controlling power over the Treaty, the IRB disintegrated over the issue and ceased to be of importance.[32]

Whether or not it was obsolete, as its critics had long argued since after the Rising, and the Treaty split had certainly left it in a diminished capacity, the IRB was far from gone or over. Instead, it had taken root, away from the sight of the casual observer. When the Organisation was to surface again, it was in the most ignominious of ways: as a defence strategy in the investigation into a mutiny.

Liam Tobin

In March 1924, several Free State army officers issued an ultimatum to President Cosgrave, styling themselves the Irish Republican Army Organisation (IRAO) and protesting against the incoming demobilization. These malcontents included Liam Tobin and Charles Dalton, formerly of Michael Collins’ famous Intelligence Squad, and other veterans who had grown dissatisfied with having been repeatedly passed over for promotion in favour of those who may have been more qualified or better suited but who had not, as the mutineers saw it, paid their dues in the War of Independence. That demobilization would almost certainly include their jobs was enough of a casus belli against state policy.

As Commander-in-Chief, General Richard Mulcahy responded by dismissing the mutineers from their army posts, only to find himself as much on trial as the mutineers in the subsequent government investigation in April 1924. The IRAO based their defence on the claim that by forming their military faction they had merely been responding to the one already present: the IRB.

Richard Mulcahy

What appeared to be a flimsy excuse was given unexpected credence by the admission from the Army Council that not only was there indeed an IRB within the army, but that they were a part of it.

Coke vs. Pepsi

The ‘IRB card’ was not to be played by the mutineers until late in the day – the IRAO ultimatum to Cosgrave did not even mention the IRB, calling only for the “removal of the Army Council” and the “immediate suspension of army demobilisation and reorganisation.” It was the The Truth About the Army Crisis, a 16-page booklet published on behalf of the IRAO, that set the mutiny within the context of the IRAO-IRB dispute.[33]

The booklet claimed that this IRB was a counterfeit, and had only been set up by the Army Council as a counter-block to the demands of the IRAO, to the point of an anonymous IRB officer telling the IRAO to “drop your organisation and we will drop ours.” Many of the IRAO had been in the Brotherhood from before, and a point of contention was that they had not been invited to re-join it.[34]

However, the booklet did admit that the reason for the irreconcilable breakdown in talks between the IRAO and the Army Council had been the latter reneging on a promise to include the former on the IRB Supreme Council. The mutineers objected to the IRB less from its existence and more because of their exclusion from it. Up to these talks breaking down for good, the mutineers had seen reconciliation with the IRB and a place for themselves within it as both likely and desirable.[35]

The mutiny should perhaps be seen not as a feud between two separate groups, one worthy and the other not, as the mutineers claimed, but as one between members of the same body: an entrenched elite against a disenfranchised grassroots.

Under the Microscope

Understandably jittery from the last time a portion of its armed forces had displayed a mind of their own and gone rogue, the government clamped down on both the mutineers of the IRAO and the Army Council. The accusations of IRB dominance of the Army Council were in part confirmed in the resulting inquiry that was spearheaded by Minister Kevin O’Higgins. Through the inquiry, the exact role of the IRB became a matter of heated debate.

Seán Ó Muirthile caricature

As Quartermaster-General of the Army Council, Seán Ó Muirthile was to bear the brunt of the inquiry committee’s questioning. A long-time Brother, he had been the chair of the IRB conference in Limerick that Ernie O’Malley had intruded upon in November-December 1921. His defence for his part in reorganising the IRB within the army was that it had been done to stop the Anti-Treatyites from taking up the IRB mantle for themselves. As prominent Anti-Treatyites Liam Lynch and Harry Boland had both been members of the IRB Supreme Council, this was not an unrealistic concern, and it shows that the IRB name still had enough potency to fear it.[36]

Lynch had gone as far as to propose – in November 1922, four months into the Civil War – writing to the IRB Supreme Council in the hope of reconvening an adjourned meeting from the previous April. There had been an anti-Treaty majority then, and Lynch had hoped to use that to re-establish the Brotherhood in his own anti-Treaty image. From there Lynch would have had a new resource from which to draw upon.[37]

Liam Lynch

As this plan was never attempted, its odds of success are debatable. But both sides of the Treaty-sundered IRB gave it the credibility of consideration: the Antis in proposing it, the Pros in countering it. As with the IRAO, the Anti-Treatyites could appreciate the value of being in the IRB as opposed to out of it.

Same Message, Different Times

Not knowing when to keep his mouth shut, Ó Muirthile went on to suggest that the IRB should continue on to guide “the social and political atmosphere with the programme of any government working towards the National and economic advancement of the Irish people without regard to parties or party influence.”[38]

This was more than just a spirited defence on Ó Muirthile’s part. Mulcahy had previously expressed the similar hope that the IRB would in time evolve into a more open society, and take the lead in implementing nationalist ideals for the rest of the country.[39]

In that regards, Ó Muirthile’s and Mulcahy’s hopes for the IRB’s role in the new Ireland were not dissimilar from that of the IRAO for itself, who publicly exhorted that “there is the unity of Ireland and full independence still to be achieved,” with themselves best placed to achieve this, of course.[40]

The sense of unfulfilled aspirations from the War of Independence and the unresolved grievances that were the Treaty’s aftertaste gave groups like the IRAO and the IRB the chance to position themselves as the true heirs of a national mission – not unlike the language in The Proclamation of the Republic which had kick-started everything off, for that matter. Given the IRB’s starring role in The Proclamation, as shown at the start of this article, one has to grant the Brotherhood a certain consistency after eight years.

In later years, Mulcahy was to find the IRB connection in the affair, and his own, a trifle embarrassing, preferring to characterise the Brotherhood less as a significant body at that stage and more, in vague and woolly terms, as a “pure Volunteer spirit that was just serving…in the traditional spirit.”[41]

One wonders, however, if the eventual result of either the IRB or IRAO continuing on would have been an Ireland in a situation akin to Turkey’s, with an ideology-led army prepared to intervene in politics to the point of ‘stepping in’ if it felt a civilian government needed amending.

And That Was That

If Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy honestly thought that the Free State would be happy for a Fenian throwback to be hovering over its shoulder like some praetorian guard, they were grossly mistaken. Likewise, the mutineers had badly misjudged the mood of the Free State government if they thought it would prefer their military faction over the other.

A plague was wished on both their houses. The inquiry committee concluded that “the reorganisation of the IRB…was a disastrous error in judgement,” and much of the blame was levelled by O’Higgins at the Army Council, Mulcahy especially as its most senior officer.[42] The Army Council – Mulcahy, Ó Muirthile, Adjutant General Gearoid O’Sullivan and Chief of Staff Sean MacMahon – were forced to resign in a ‘house cleaning’ of IRB influence from the upper military echelons.

As for the IRAO, had the mutineers been reinstated to their posts as they wished, then their faction may have continued on and even prospered in the absence of its rival. But they were not, and the fledgling IRAO died with their military careers.

From then on, the IRB ceased to be a factor in Irish politics or society. While the IRB had weathered worse storms than its loss of four senior members from the army, it never recovered from this one. Nor was there much to mark its loss. Fittingly for a society that had lived in the shadows, it passed away unseen. Even the historian Leon Ó Broin, usually an authoritative source on the Brotherhood, was uncertain as to “whether any formal decision was ever taken to wind ‘the Organisation’ up: the Supreme Council may have just stopped meeting.”[43]

An example of how deeply rooted the IRB had been, to be the point of being hard to tell where it began and ended, was how the government’s choice of replacement for Mulcahy, Eoin O’Duffy, had to resign as Treasurer for IRB funds in order to take up his new post as Commander-in-Chief.[44]

Wolfe Tone statue, St Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Despite this glaring oversight on the government’s part, there is no suggestion that O’Duffy used this position to continue the IRB in any form. As late as 1964, these same funds lay in a bank in the names of trustees, the first being Seán Ó Muirthile. Finally they were transferred towards the cost of the Wolfe Tone statue now on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.[45]

Whatever the exact point the IRB could be pronounced dead, it was well and truly gone by that stage. The wheel had turned since the glory days of Brotherhood influence, such as when it had engineered at the Gaelic League ard-fheis of 1915 the election of one of their own as director of appointments despite Tom Clarke not knowing a word of Irish.[46] Or keeping an impetuous James Connolly from acting too soon with his Irish Citizen Army in 1916, thus allowing for the IRB’s own plans to go ahead for Easter Monday as synchronized. By 1924, the IRB had stepped on too many toes and made too many enemies, and few tears were shed at its loss.[47]

Fittingly, the man who more than anyone had delivered the coup de grâce to the IRB in the form of the Army Crisis investigation, Kevin O’Higgins, was a former Brother. There was to be little room for sentimentality in the new Ireland, and the sow had devoured its farrow.

Kevin O’Higgins


While in many ways a successful organisation, the IRB was not a popular one. Its strategy of armed revolution against British rule in Ireland was vindicated by the adoption of this same policy by other nationalist bodies such as the Irish Volunteers. Yet the IRB was to be distrusted by many if its fellow revolutionaries for its secrecy and insularity, or dismissed as an irrelevance.

Despite this hostility, the IRB continued to thrive as it retained the enthusiasm of its members and recruited new ones throughout the War of Independence, even if its presence within IRA brigades led to tensions. Much has been said of its supposed role in pushing the Treaty through, but that is to misunderstand the structure of the IRB, which was too decentralised for its leadership to force anything on unwilling members.

While diminished from the Treaty split, the IRB nonetheless seemed set to continue on in an influential role within the Free State army, with its leaders within the Army Council nurturing ambitions for the Organisation as a shepherd of national ideals. This was until a mutiny and the subsequent government investigation in 1924 brought this influence to light and derailed these ambitions.

With its leading members forced to resign from the army, the IRB died an undignified death, fading away from a country and state built on its efforts that saw no further use for it.


Originally posted on The Irish Story (11/11/2013)


See also:

‘This Splendid Historic Organisation’: The Irish Republican Brotherhood among the Anti-Treatyites, 1921-4

Career Conspirators: The (Mis)Adventures of Seán Ó Muirthile and the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the Free State Army, 1923-4


[1] O’Dwyer, Eamon (BMH / WS 1474), p. 39
[2] Ibid, pp.52-3
[3] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976), p. 163
[4] Lynch, Diarmuid (BMH / WS 4), p. 9
[5] Lyons, George (BMH / WS 104), p. 6
[6] Ibid
[7] Lynch, Diarmuid (BMH / WS 4), p. 9
[8] Robinson, Séamus (BMH / WS 1721), p. 18
[9] Ibid
[10] Deasy, Liam. Towards Ireland Free (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1973), pp. 258-9
[11] O’Malley, pp. 36-7
[12] Henderson, Frank (BMH / WS 821), p. 18-9
[13] Ibid, p. 18
[14] Bell, J. Bowyer. The Secret Army: The IRA (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008), p. 46
[15] Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State (Kill Lane: Irish Academic Press Ltd, 1992), p. 48
[16] Deasy, p. 57 ; Hart, Peter. The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 192-3
[17] Hart, p. 193
[18] MacEoin, Seán (BMH / WS 1716), pp. 9-10
[19] Ibid, pp. 4-5
[20] Ibid, pp. 193, 241
[21] Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Indepenence (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002), p. 118
[22] Ibid
[23] Hart, p. 242
[24] O’Malley, pp. 285-6
[25] Hogan, David. The Four Glorious Years (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1971), p.246
[26] Ibid, pp. 246-7
[27] Robinson, Séamus (BMH / WS 1721), p. 18
[28] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1978), p. 286
[29] McKenna, Seamus(Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement, BMH /WS 1016), p. 45
[30] McKenna, Seamus (BMH /WS 1016), p. 45
[31] Curran, Joseph M. The Birth of the Irish Free State 1921-1923 (Alabama: The University of Alabama, 1980), p. 146
[32] Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against the Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988),  p. 45
[33] The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation (Dublin: 78A Summerhill) Available from the UCD Library – Special Collections, 1.X.2/7, p. 12
[34] Ibid, p. 6
[35] Ibid
[36] Ó Broin, p. 213
[37] Regan, John M. Michael Collins, General Commanding-in-Chief, as a Historiographical Problem, p. 334 (Accessed on 05/10/2013)
[38] Valiulis, p. 229
[39] Ibid
[40] The Truth, p. 11
[41] Valiulis, p. 168
[42] Ibid, p. 230
[43] Ó Broin, p. 221
[44] Bell, p. 67
[45] Ó Broin, p. 222
[46] Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin Books, 1989), pp. 475-6
[47] Lynch, Diarmuid (BMH / WS 4), p. 9


Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Henderson, Frank, WS 821

Lynch, Diarmuid, WS 4

Lyons, George, WS 104

Mac Eoin, Seán (BMH / WS 1716)

McKenna, Séumas, WS 1016

O’Dwyer, Eamon, WS 1474

Robinson, Séamus, WS 1721


Bell, J. Bowyer. The Secret Army: The IRA (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2008)

Curran, Joseph M. The Birth of the Irish Free State 1921-1923 (Alabama: The University of Alabama, 1980)

Deasy, Liam. Towards Ireland Free (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1973)

Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland 1600-1972 (London: Penguin Books, 1989)

Hart, Peter. The I.R.A. and its Enemies: Violence and Community in Cork 1916-1923 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999)

Hogan, David. The Four Glorious Years (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1971)

Hopkinson, Michael. Green Against the Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988)

Hopkinson, Michael. The Irish War of Indepenence (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2002)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary Underground: The story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1976)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Anvil Books, 1978)

The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation (Dublin: 78A Summerhill). Available from the UCD Library – Special Collections, 1.X.2/7

Valiulis, Maryann Gialanella. Portrait of a Revolutionary: General Richard Mulcahy and the Founding of the Irish Free State (Kill Lane: Irish Academic Press Ltd, 1992)

Online Material

Regan, John M. Michael Collins, General Commanding-in-Chief, as a Historiographical Problem (Accessed on 05/10/2013)

Among the Philistines: Dissent and Reaction in the Mullingar IRA Brigade, 1921

The Arrests

mullingar2On 4th November 1921, Michael Collins, as Director of Intelligence, wrote to the staff of the Mullingar IRA Brigade in Co. Westmeath. He had received a troubling letter about the arrests of two of its Volunteers: Patrick Dowling on 21st September, followed by Christopher Kelleghan on 22nd. Both had been singled out for subversive activities when they attempted to contact the GHQ of the IRA in Dublin.

The two men, so the letter went, were imprisoned in the cellars of a building on the outskirts of Mullingar along with a number of other suspects. The cellar was damp and sleeping conditions primitive, with Dowling and Kelleghan having to make do with some straw, wooden boards, a single blanket and a ground sheet. Dowling was allowed an hour and a half outside for exercise each day while Kelleghan had half an hour.

Most disturbing were the allegations that the abuse had not been limited to simple neglect. Upon arrival at the place of detention, Dowling had been ordered to say his prayers as he was about to be shot. His request to see a priest was refused on the grounds that his execution was about to happen immediately. At no point had either man been given a trial or court-martial of any kind.

The letter that Collins had received summed up such conduct in a damning verdict: “This treatment of prisoners is peculiarly English.” Except English tyranny could not be blamed for an Irish injustice this time. Dowling and Kelleghan had been detained by their own comrades in the Mullingar IRA at the behest of the Brigade staff.

Irish Volunteers
Irish Volunteers

The Charges

The reason why the two prisoners were being so abominably treated, according to the letter, was because they had complained to GHQ about the poor state of affairs within the Brigade. Opportunities to strike against the RIC and the British army had been squandered to the point that Crown forces had moved openly through the town of Mullingar as if without a care in the world.

Informers had been tolerated, an example being that of a local official whose letter to the RIC District Inspector about the locations of Volunteers ‘on the run’ had been intercepted. The matter was reported at once to the Brigade HQ, yet no attempt had been made to punish the spy.

It was true that the ongoing Truce had put a halt to any military operations by the IRA but when the fighting resumed, as it was likely to do so, how could the Mullingar Brigade in its present state expect to do its part? It was thus for the good of the cause that Dowling and Kelleghan had made their complaints. For his efforts, Kelleghan had been threatened with death if he did not flee the country by none other than James Maguire, the O/C of the Brigade.

Collins ended his message with a request for a full report to be submitted on the matter as soon as possible. The author of the letter that Collins had received went unnamed though, judging by the sympathetic tone, it was either Dowling or Kelleghan, or someone close to them.

The Replies

Also unnamed was the commentator who left annotations in the margins of Collins’ message but it can be surmised that it was James Maguire. A comment next to the passage about Maguire threatening to shoot Kelleghan was dismissive: “never saw Kelleghan until after his confinement.” Another side note to the claim that Kelleghan had been arrested due to his complaints to GHQ was a simple: “No knowledge.” In protest to the alleged harsh treatment of the two prisoners, Maguire, or whoever was the commentator, said that they had been fed the same as their guards.

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Collins was not the only senior revolutionary figure who would be drawn into this dispute. As Adjutant-General of the IRA, Gearóid O’Sullivan would be called upon to handle the bulk of the paperwork relating to the case. In a letter to Sean Boylan on 17th October, O’Sullivan asked the 1st Eastern Division’s O/C, who represented the middle tier between GHQ and the country brigades, for a report on the arrests of Dowling and Kelleghan, the charges against them and the conditions of their imprisonment.

Boylan was also to explain, and here a note of reproach slid into O’Sullivan’s letter, why the matter had not originally been reported to Boylan, the implication being that he should have handled it before it could go any further up the hierarchical ladder to land on O’Sullivan’s desk.

The Fact-Finding

Another issue that needed addressing was the lack of a court-martial for Dowling and Kelleghan after their arrest. If the Mullingar Brigade had failed to provide one, then it would be up to GHQ in the form of O’Sullivan to fill that breach in procedure. Many of O’Sullivan’s letters were thus for the purpose of gathering the necessary information for the upcoming inquiry.

One unresolved question was the status of Kelleghan within the IRA. A letter, dated 13th October, from O’Sullivan to Liam Lynch, the O/C of the 1st Southern Division which encompassed the Cork brigades, asked for further details on the man. Kelleghan had claimed to have been a member of the 7th Battalion of the 2nd Cork Brigade, where he had held the posts of Company Quartermaster and Battalion Armourer. According to him, he had been on active service with the battalion for a few months previous to the Christmas of 1920 before returning to his native Mullingar on sick leave.

O’Sullivan explained to Lynch that it “appears [Kelleghan] incited some local at Mullingar, but tried to fight, and because he complained of the indolence of his Officers, Kelleghan finds himself transferred since the Truce.”

The gap in O’Sullivan’s text hints at the problem of classifying exactly what had happened. The accused had not disobeyed orders or directly challenged their superiors, so ‘mutiny’ did not seem to be quite the right word.

Whatever the case, it was going to take a lot of solving. O’Sullivan hinted as much in his parting sentence to Lynch: “A rather full report is necessary in order to deal with the disciplinary side of the matter.”

Further Details

A letter, dated 21st October, from Seán Grogan, the O/C of the 1st Battalion, Mullingar Brigade, provided an insider’s perspective to the incident. Grogan told of how, in November 1920, he had been approached by Kelleghan who told him he had just arrived from Cork a few days ago, having previously served in the IRA there. Kelleghan had asked about the possibility of acquiring some revolvers for Cork but the conversation petered out when Grogan told him that Mullingar had no guns to spare.

In February 1921, it was discovered that Kelleghan had assembled, on his own initiative, a flying column with eight others in the Mullingar Company. Not that Grogan thought they could achieve much, lacking as they did weapons and ammunition (a constant headache for the Westmeath Volunteers), but Kelleghan had apparently told his new followers that not only had he received permission from GHQ to start the column, but that he would provide the necessary equipment.

Irish Volunteers

Whatever the story, the affront to Brigade discipline was galling. A few days later, a parade of the Company was called. Michael McCoy, the unit O/C, asked the assembled men: “Anyone present belonging to Kelleghan’s crowd step out of the ranks.”

Eight of the attendees stepped forth. McCoy told them that they could not belong to two companies and that they were to be suspended from the Mullingar one, pending instructions from the Brigade HQ.

A month later, Grogan attended a council meeting, where a written report on the episode was handed to the Brigade O/C, James Maguire. Maguire agreed that suspending the Volunteers involved had been the only course of action under the circumstances. Furthermore, if the men in question were found to be further interfering with the work of the Company, they would be arrested.

Mullingar Barracks, ca. 1865-1914

Nothing further was heard about the column. The idea appeared to have withered on the vine, and the mutinous feelings with it, until sometime after the Truce in July 1921, when Dowling sent a report to GHQ. Grogan did not say what Dowling’s letter contained but its tone can be guessed. The message was forwarded to James Maguire who made good on his threat.

At another Brigade council, on 20th September, it was decided that Dowling be arrested on the charges of making false statements about Brigade officers. As an afterthought, Kelleghan was also to be detained as the instigator of the whole mess. Both men were thus imprisoned until the visit of a GHQ inspector to Mullingar.

The Inspector

This GHQ inspector wrote a report on his findings, having interviewed the prisoners, Dowling and Kelleghan, as well as James Maguire and his second-in-command, Vice-Commandant Henry Killeavy. Dated 12th October, the report was unsigned, leaving the author anonymous to historians.

The conditions of imprisonment were found to be indeed bad, with the exception of the food which both prisoners agreed was good. Otherwise, in the inspector’s stated opinion, the two men had a genuine grievance about how they had been treated. That the captives had been without a wash and forced to remain in the same clothes was an abuse that should be taken up with the Brigade staff.

Neither Maguire nor Killeavy for the most part bothered to deny the severe conditions they had put their prisoners through. Nor did they give Dowling and Kelleghan credit for any good intentions, instead attributing their complaints to jealousy against those who had been elected Company officers instead of them. Killeavy added that he had never known Dowling to be any more eager for action than the other members of his Company.

Kelleghan, they had regarded with suspicion since he had made no attempt to join his local company upon his return from Cork. Not that either officer had made any attempt to verify Kelleghan’s claims about his service with the Cork IRA, nor were they particularly concerned about the eight men they had dismissed for being tempted into the column. Killeavy in particular was contemptuous, considering their loss a case of good riddance.

Both denied the claims by Dowling and Kelleghan that they had missed opportunities for action prior to the Truce. The inspector, however, was sceptical enough to include in his report his opinion that such chances had indeed come and gone.

The inspector believed that both the Brigade leadership and the dismissed men could have come to an agreement to work together. But it was no good fretting over what could have been. For now, after taking the known facts into consideration, the inspector advised that Dowling and Kelleghan be released pending further investigation.

The Contacts

A letter, dated 22nd October 1921, by Joseph Begnal, the Adjutant of the 5th Battalion, Mullingar Brigade, provided an extra dimension to the story: Upon arrest, Dowling and Kelleghan had had a number of letters on them.

This correspondence was related to the connections both of them had made in Dublin with men they believed to be from GHQ. These contacts went as far as to claim that they could get in touch with the famed Michael Collins quite easily.

As far as Begnal could ascertain, none of the supposed GHQ intermediaries were genuine, raising the question as to whether these Dublin contacts had truly been interested in Dowling’s and Kelleghan’s situation or had simply fooling them for whatever purpose.

The Inquiry

mullingarBy November, O’Sullivan had gathered enough preliminary evidence to proceed with an inquiry, to be held in Mullingar. The two co-defendants, for the inquiry was as much their trial, were present. O’Sullivan examined them and took their statements along with those from three of the others who had been dismissed from their Company.

Intending to do a thorough job and, hopefully, hear the last of it, O’Sullivan also took statements from the Brigade staff: James Maguire as Brigade O/C, and Henry Killeavy as Vice-Commandant, as well as Sean Boylan as their Divisional Commander. Killeavy in particular and his conduct as an officer would become an issue throughout the hearings.

The longest of the statements was Dowling’s, who used the opportunity to air a number of complaints. Perhaps on the principle that ‘the best form of defence is offence’, Dowling told a bleak tale about his former unit, a litany of missed opportunities by the Company and professional neglect on the part of its officers:

  • No action taken against a spy who worked as a workhouse official. When asked by the inquiry how he knew the man was an informant, Dowling pointed to the discovery of an incriminating letter, though he admitted that he had not seen the letter for himself.
  • Another alleged spy, Miss Costello (Dowling was unsure as to her first name) was left untouched, despite being overheard saying: “I won’t be long till I have the rest of them in,” an apparent reference to the Volunteers being arrested.
  • A plan by Barney O’Reilly, the Company Captain, to kidnap a RIC policeman in Mullingar, or at least rob him of his revolver, was quashed by Killeavy, who responded to the proposal by calling O’Reilly an idiot.
  • When a soldier from the nearby British army barracks wanted to sell his Webley revolver for £3 to the Volunteers, O’Reilly would only agree to pay 10s. As a result, the deal fell through.
  • Killeavy was drunk at a ceilidhe, during which he struck the O/C, Maguire, with his revolver.

Although he did not contribute much else to the inquiry, Joseph Farrell, one of the four men who had been dismissed, provided another example of Killeavy’s squandering of an opportunity: a British sergeant in the nearby garrison had offered the sale of sixteen rifles if the Volunteers would take them from the barracks. Farrell passed this onto Killeavy but the Vice-Commandant did nothing about it.

Another suspended man, Malachy Mulkeans, corroborated to the inquiry the story of Killeavy being publicly drunk, though he did not see him strike Maguire.

Patrick Dowling

Worsening tensions within the Company was the selection process for its officers. The Company men were told on parade ground that they could not select their officers themselves; this to be done instead by the Brigade staff in accordance with orders from GHQ. Dowling did not think much of some of the officers so selected, though he did not consider himself to be more suitable.

When told to come to a Company meeting, a disgruntled Dowling sarcastically asked if it was going to be for the usual lacklustre activities. Dowling was rapidly gaining a reputation as a malcontent.

Kelleghan asked Dowling at a Company meeting if he would be interested in joining a flying column if one was formed. None of them spoke to the Company officers about the matter. Dowling defended his keeping of his seniors in the dark: “I thought I was acting within the spirit of my Oath of allegiance to my Officers and Dáil Éireann.”

However self-serving, it was a pertinent point, and one that was never properly rebutted. After all, however unauthorised the column had been, was it not part of what the Volunteers were supposed to be doing?

When Dowling was arrested, it was by two other Volunteers who arrived at his home to ask him to come with them. No reasons were given. Dowling dutifully went with them, and they waited by the side of a road for an hour. The two escorts conferred in private and then one left, leaving the other to inform Dowling that he was now under arrest.

A motor car drove up to meet them. Killeavy stepped out, telling Dowling to put on his coat and the other man to blindfold Dowling. When Dowling asked if he was going to be executed, Killeavy replied in the negative. Dowling was driven to the place that was to be his prison. He was left in the cell for a fortnight, and ultimately detained for three weeks.

Of his treatment, Dowling claimed, three days passed before he was allowed exercise and sixteen days before a blanket was given for his straw-bed. For four days he had neither a wash nor a shave.

Christopher Kelleghan

Although identified by the Brigade staff as the Iago of the troubles, Kelleghan’s statement was comparatively brief next to his co-defendant’s. He had known Dowling from school in Mullingar. His prior IRA service had been in the Millstreet Company in Co. Cork, where he had taken part in an ambush as a lookout along with some other minor activities. Upon his return to Mullingar in December 1920, he had considered getting a transfer to the local IRA but decided against due to knowing nothing about the scene.

He knew enough, however, to approach Dowling and then fourteen other Volunteers – those he and Dowling thought of as the best men for the role – for the purposes of forming a column. At some point, these fourteen had been whittled down to the eight who were willing to step forward on the parade ground as “Kelleghan’s crowd”.

Perhaps after some prodding from the inquiry, Kelleghan admitted that he should have joined the Mullingar IRA properly and that he had drawn his recruits from their loyalty to their officers, but maintained he had been right to do so.

Unlike Dowling, he did not list the faults in the Mullingar Brigade, being content to focus on Killeavy. Killeavy, he said, had not turned up when mobilised for Volunteer meetings back in 1919. Kelleghan had little to say about the Vice-Commandant at the present time, other than how he, as a prisoner, had heard Killeavy giving his guards orders to shoot should there be an escape-attempt.

Kelleghan reiterated Dowling’s complaints that they had been allowed very little exercise while in custody and of the lack of bed-clothes and any change of clothes. Conceding again that his actions had been undisciplined, he insisted that he thought he could legitimatise his column with GHQ through his Dublin contacts.

The Mystery Men

One question that was never fully answered in the inquiry was the role of these mystery contacts in which Kelleghan had put so much faith. Kelleghan had been convinced by them that GHQ had blessed his efforts in forming a column and would provide the required weapons. This proved not to be the case at all, yet Kelleghan and Dowling gave stories that were broadly similar enough to be convincing, if not altogether clear.

According to Dowling, Kelleghan had travelled to Dublin to seek support for his proposed column and met a man called Martin. When Kelleghan told Martin about his plan, Martin asked if he would like to meet some GHQ men. Dowling was also in Dublin shortly afterwards and spoke with Martin, having previously known the latter’s brother in Mullingar.

Martin forwarded Dowling to another man, O’Kennedy, and the two conversed in the pub where O’Kennedy worked, during which O’Kennedy dropped the names of Michael Collins and other prominent leaders. Dowling took the other man to be a GHQ initiate on the basis of what Martin told him, and told the inquiry that he would be greatly surprised to learn that O’Kennedy was not even a Volunteer.

Kelleghan’s account of these contacts is characteristically short, saying only that he knew nothing about a man called Kennedy (the ‘O’ being dropped in Kelleghan’s statement), and he had met Martin in Dublin sometime in 1921, having been given an introduction from an anonymous third party.

As Martin had helped Kelleghan get in with several other Volunteers, Kelleghan had assumed he was in the IRA as well and – echoing Dowling – would be surprised to hear that Martin was not a Volunteer after all.

The Senior Staff

Not that Boylan could have claimed much activity in regards to the case, saying only that he had asked Maguire to deal with it and to report to him but giving no indication that he had checked on progress or offered anything in the way of guidance.

Maguire was equally keen in his testimony to remain aloof from any responsibility. He had heard about the trouble within the Company when it had first started in February but held off having the guilty parties arrested until September due to a lack of space to confine them.

Presenting himself as merely the go-between for others’ orders, Maguire said that he had been told by Boylan to deal with Dowling and Kelleghan, by which he took to mean arrest. He had never met any of the eight suspended men and had left any necessary investigating to the Company officers like Killeavy.

Henry Killeavy

Aware that Killeavy’s reputation was also at stake, Maguire praised his Vice-Commandant as a good man. Maguire was being generous. As he recounted years later in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, he and Killeavy had fallen out sometime before the Truce, the issue being whether the latter was Vice O/C of the 1st Battalion.

Killeavy had insisted he had been appointed as such but refused to give Maguire any evidence to support his claim. Maguire found Killeavy an impossible man to reason with but, unlike in the cases of Dowling or Kelleghan, made no effort to discipline or demote him. Either it was easier to let Killeavy keep a post that no one else wanted or he was just a difficult man to say ‘no’ to.

No wonder the 1st Battalion had been in a “bad state of disorganisation”, as Maguire put it, with such dysfunction at its top and members seemingly appointing themselves to whatever positions they wanted. But Maguire was clearly prepared to put on a united front when it came to outsiders like O’Sullivan peering into the inner workings of his Brigade or with uppity subordinates forgetting their place.[1]

For his part, Killeavy denied being drunk at a ceilidge or striking Maguire. He did not remember Farrell reporting the chance to buy rifles nor did he recall the offer of purchasing a Webley revolver. That Costello or anyone else had been spies had never been passed onto him.

He denied saying anything to Dowling or Kelleghan upon their arrest, let alone threatening to shoot either of them. This was not an entirely convincing defence, as Killeavy’s temperamental behaviour during the inquiry would lead to O’Sullivan severely reprimanding him for such rash remarks towards the eight dismissed men as: “If I had my way there would be none of the eight of them.”

The Result

The attitude of most of the defendants was one of contrition. Patrick Dowling, Joseph Farrell, Malachy Mulkearns and the fourth one, Jack Reilly, expressed regret for their indiscipline, and agreed to obey the orders of their officers in the future if they were allowed back into the Company. O’Sullivan was satisfied that the four men had acted with the best of intentions, however wrongly, and had been led into their breach of indiscipline by Kelleghan.

All four were to be severely reprimanded and ordered to apologise to Maguire. Following that, they were to be reattached to the Company for three months on probation, after which the question of their continuation in the IRA would be settled for good.

As for Kelleghan, O’Sullivan could find no proof for his claims that he had been a Volunteer in Cork or that he had been attached to the Mullingar Company. Until the necessary paperwork was received, any sentence on Kelleghan would be pending.

In the meantime, Kelleghan was found guilty of inciting indiscipline and of speaking about IRA matters to a non-Volunteer, by which O’Sullivan meant the mysterious Martin. As with the other four, the inquiry was inclined to believe that Kelleghan had not acted maliciously.

O’Sullivan asked Maguire if he would be prepared to reinstate these men. The O/C asked for leave to consult with his staff. After he had done that, Maguire announced that he was indeed prepared to take the prodigal sons back.

Writing to his own superior officer on 3rd November, O’Sullivan told Cathal Brugha, the IRA Chief of Staff, his satisfaction with the inquiry results: “I believe this will be for the good of the Mullingar Brigade generally as they were inclined to allow matters rest too long and then act in a thoughtless hasty fashion.”

In contrast with the findings of the GHQ inspector from before, O’Sullivan had found that there was no evidence to support the most allegation against the Mullingar Brigade staff, that of mistreatment of Dowling and Kelleghan during their imprisonment.

Kelleghan was to have a sliver of vindication when a letter came in from Liam Lynch on 17th December, in response to the requests for information on Kelleghan. Lynch confirmed that Kelleghan had indeed been in the Millstreet Company while in Co. Cork, and had served in the local flying column before ill health forced him to leave. During his time there, he was found to be an “attentive and energetic Volunteer.”

Which may have been so, but in Mullingar, discipline, obedience and towing the Company line were shown to be more important than personal initiative and enthusiasm.[2]


[1] Maguire, James (BMH / WS 1439), p. 20

[2] Richard Mulcahy Papers, UCD Archives, P7/A/31


Originally posted on The Irish Story (28/10/2015)


See also: Kidnapped in Mullingar: An IRA Operation and its Aftermath, 1920

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


UCD Archives

Richard Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/31

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statement

Maguire, James, WS 1439

Book Review: The Reluctant Taoiseach: A Biography of John A. Costello, by David McCullagh (2011)

John_Costello_Book_CoverOne possible lesson to take from this book is that politics is something best left to politicians. Shortly after the 1957 electoral defeat of John A. Costello’s second and final coalition government, the former Taoiseach was walking along the Dublin quays with two other senior Fine Gael men, James Dillon and Patrick Lindsay.

As they passed a pub, Dillon remarked about how he had never been in one except his own which he had sold after observing how much money his customers were spending which could have gone instead into family essentials. Costello chipped in with a story of the one time he had been in a pub when a bottle of orange juice had almost been too much for him.

To the worldlier Lindsay, the pub was “the countryman’s club, where everything is discussed and where contacts are made.” The exchange he had witnessed told him all too much as to why Fine Gael “are going in this direction today and why we are out of touch with the people.”

Also telling was Costello’s subsequent performance as a part-time leader of the opposition. An exceptionally gifted barrister, his success at attracting briefs in Cork – no small achievement for the Dubliner Costello, given how hard it was for outsiders to break into its insular legal world – led to him dividing his time between court hearings there and Dáil attendance in Dublin. Costello was obliged to travel to Cork on one Sunday evening and then return to Dublin on Wednesday evening for a Budget vote before returning to Cork early on Thursday morning.

John A. Costello in a barrister’s robes and wig

It was an impressive display of time management – when it could be done. At other times, Costello was forced to prioritise one duty over another, such as when he spent three weeks in Cork with the High Court at the expense of two weeks of Dáil sittings. His party followed his example. Attendance of Fine Gael TDs was poor, and those present often preferred to read quietly or talk amongst themselves. Fianna Fáil could not have asked for a more obliging opposition.

If any study of Fianna Fáil can equate to a study of 20th Irish politics, given the sheer regularity of the party in power (only time will tell if its current malaise will prove to be a passing phase or a more lasting decline), then, by that same token, a look at Ireland’s also-rans can give an insight into what not to do.

While it would be simplistic to attribute Fine Gael’s problems to a reticence towards having a pint or two, its leaders have displayed a remarkably consistency over the years in not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Enda Kenny’s snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory following his inept 2007 debate with Bertie Ahern, and Alan Duke’s high-minded-but-disastrous ‘Tallaght Strategy’ are two examples that spring to mind.

Richard Mulcahy

As the title to McCullagh’s book suggests, Costello was an unusual choice for the top job but then, the 1948 general election produced an unusual government, being an alliance of ‘everyone but Fianna Fáil’. Due to his record of executions during the Civil War, Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy was an unacceptable choice for Taoiseach but Labour and Clann na Poblachta were supportive of Costello as a compromise candidate, thanks in no small part to his friendship with leading figures in both parties.

The man of the hour was oblivious to the discussions being made on his behalf and was not pleased when the offer was broached to him. Costello’s aversion stemmed in part to financial considerations. With a family to support, he was reluctant to put aside the money he was making at the Bar for the uncertainty of politics. But his main concern, as he confided to his son and with a humility rarely found in politics, was his lack of self-confidence and the “fear amounting almost to terror that I would be a flop as Taoiseach.”

When his suggested alternatives were brushed away by his colleagues, and faced with their unanimous support (not something every prospective leader can claim), Costello finally gave in. Never one to let things get to his head, Costello responded to the rapturous ovation at the following Fine Gael meeting by pointing at Mulcahy and saying: “This is the man you should be applauding, not me.”

Compared to the likes of Éamon de Valera, who had only to look within his heart to know what the Irish people wanted, or Charles Haughey (enough said), such humility makes for a refreshing change. The question remained, however, as to whether, to steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, the new Taoiseach would have much to be humble about.

The first Inter-Party Government has largely been remembered for two of its initiatives: the Mother and Child Scheme and the 1948 declaration of the Irish Republic. McCullagh treats his subject’s role in both sympathetically but not uncritically.

The Cabinet of the 1948-1951 Inter-Party Government

If Costello was obsequious in his deference to the Church then, as McCullagh reminds us, that was to be entirely expected in those pre-Father Ted times. As for the repeal of the External Relations Act, it finally put paid to a long-standing ambiguity – was Ireland in the Commonwealth or not? – but the abruptness with which Costello announced it and his unnecessarily defensive manner did him no favours.

Éamon de Valera

Costello’s government fell apart by the bare minimum of Dáil seats when a handful of Independent TDs were wooed over to Fianna Fáil. As part of the new cost-cutting policies under Éamon de Valera, Costello lost his state car. A measure of the man can be gauged by how he allowed de Valera to not only keep his when the roles were reversed a couple of years later and it was Fianna Fáil’s turn on the Opposition benches but also the insurance on the exact same terms as before.

The two years before Costello’s return to office was perhaps the highlight of his dual careers as barrister and politician. As the former, Costello defended The Leader journal against the libel suit by the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Costello’s victory for his client after the devastating cross-examination against Kavanagh on the stand did not deter the two from becoming friends.

The Kavanagh case is one of the few times McCullagh detours into Costello’s legal work. Charles Lysaght has criticised the book in the Irish Independent for this abridgement, pointing out how Costello had been Ireland’s leading barrister in the 1930s to the early ‘50s. But then, how many readers would be as interested in Costello the lawyer as they would be in Costello the statesman?

John A. Costello

On the public stage, Costello was able to hammer away at his enemies’ austerity measures (as popular then as today) until a succession of by-election defeats for the government forced a general election. That the outgoing Fianna Fáil administration had been briefer than Costello’s (who was not above highlighting such a fact) was sweet vindication against those who had griped that such a hybrid as a coalition government could never last.

But gaining power is not the same as handling it. The economic gloom deepened, prompting a reverse situation from before, with the Inter-Party Government losing ground through lost by-elections. Already depressed by the death of his wife, Costello adopted an increasingly impervious note: “I have had so many disappointments that one more does not make any difference.”

The one that did was the use of the Irish Army and Gardai against resurgent IRA violence along the Border. The staunchly Republican Clann na Poblachta, who had been propping up the government as before, responded with a vote of no confidence.

Seán MacBride

Ironies abounded. Costello had always despised Partition to the point of being rude to some hapless RUC officers who were rescuing his car from a flooded road while he was on holiday in the North. Seán MacBride had initially demurred from the censure motion until pressure from his party forced his hand. He feared that a rebounding De Valera would be even harder on the IRA – which, of course, he was. McCullaugh quotes one Republican activist who was interned throughout the subsequent Fianna Fáil administration that at least under Costello he had been assured of a fair trial.

With no choice but to call a general election, Costello kept a brave face amidst the crushing defeat, with the Soldiers of Destiny snagging 78 out of the 147 seats on offer. McCullagh is brutally frank about the scale of Fine Gael’s disaster and Costello’s lacklustre leadership when back in opposition but he makes the case that many of the initiatives Seán Lemass would be celebrated for – the economic revival and his glasnost towards the North – had had their roots under Costello.

This book is well-written, flowing smoothly from one subject to another. The research is impeccable, allowing readers to gain a strong sense of the times as well as of the players involved. The central one here is, of course, Costello, managing his colleagues with skill, events perhaps less so. Costello was suited more to the private life of a barrister than a public one as a politician. Yet he was able to succeed at both and his dual terms as Taoiseach, regardless of his fears, left an enduring mark on Irish politics.


Publisher’s Website: Gill & MacMillan, Limited