A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

A Man for all the Seasons

Among the surviving voices from the War of Independence, Séumas Robinson was an unusually loquacious one. While most Statements submitted to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) were content to begin with an overview of pedestrian facts – e.g. family history, early life and influences, any notable relatives – Robinson’s Statement started his with a playfully philosophical burst:

Somewhere deep in the camera (or is it the anti-camera?) of my cerebrum (or is it my cerebellum?), whose loci, by the way, are the frontal lobes of the cranium of this and every other specimen of homo-sapiens – there lurks furtively and nebulously, nevertheless positively, a thing, a something, a conception (deception?), a perception, an inception, that the following agglomeration of reminisces will be “my Last Will and Testament.[1]

As this quirky, almost singsong, opening sentence would suggest, Robinson was more than just another IRA veteran recalling his war stories for posterity and a pension. For one, he was a full-time staff member of the BMH, which would explain his confidence in beginning his Statement on his own terms instead of following the lead of his interviewer and answering from the list of pre-arranged questions.

Robinson had no time for that, what with the amount he had to say, pent-up as it was from the previous thirty years of silence. That the aforementioned agglomeration of reminiscences of his be known and recorded was a matter of utmost importance to him, despite his concern that he was not in a position to do them justice.

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The stated reasons for his worry were many: he was no historian. He had been too close to the events to give them a proper overview like an historian should. History had to be full of facts, and facts were half-lies anyway, so what was the use of history in the first place? If Robinson had been present when Henry Ford had declared that history was more or less bunk, he would undoubtedly have nodded in appreciation (however shocked he would have been at the car tycoon’s atheism, given his devout Catholicism).

Robinson’s soliloquy as the prologue to his Statement is a rambling masterpiece of charming self-doubt, gentle self-deprecation and cheerful cynicism at the follies of man in thinking he can know his own past: “Only an angel can record the truth-absolute.”[2]

It is also a complete façade and one that did not take very long to drop. Robinson was to display throughout the rest of his Statement a very definite certainty in the idea of a truth-absolute, in this world as much as the one of angels, as well as a hot-blooded readiness to spring into attack should his place in history be threatened by unscrupulous and uncouth hoaxers.

And why not? His status was not inconsiderate. He had fought at the Easter Rising and helped change the course of Irish history. During the War of Independence, he had been commander of the Third Tipperary Brigade and then second-in-command to the Second Southern Division. In the theatre of politics he had been elected TD for Waterford-Tipperary East in 1920, had argued vigorously in the Dáil debates over the Treaty, against which he would take up arms against in the name of the Republic, and in the years of peace afterwards he was a Fianna Fáil Senator to the Seanad Éireann.

Patriot, guerrilla leader, elected representative, war hero, a historian for all his protests, and finally a statesman – Séumas Robinson had been a man of success in many a field. And yet he was to be constantly tormented, enraged and provoked into writing streams of vehement counter-attacks by the burning conviction that his colleague and brother-in-arms, Dan Breen, the arch-hoaxer, had, with the connivance of the cold-hearted and ungrateful people of Tipperary, fucked him over.

DanBreen_SeanHogan_chicago
Dan Breen (seated)

Kathleen Kincaid

breenRobinson’s contention was that Breen had falsely made several claims about his role in the War of Independence through his 1924 memoir, My Fight for Irish Freedom. It was a case he would make repeatedly, in his Statement and in the numerous letters he wrote to various newspapers or individuals and later collected in the appendix of his Statement.

Not all the letters were written by himself, for he had adopted an ally in his war of words: his sister-in-law, Kathleen Kincaid. While too young to contribute anything herself during the War of Independence, Kincaid was steeped in the struggle by virtue of her family home of 71 Heytesbury Street, Dublin. This had been used as a safe-house and meeting-place for those on the run, including many famous names such as Ernie O’Malley, Seán McBride and Liam Lynch, among others, and she claimed to have “met or saw and heard nearly everyone of the real fighting men” through this.[3]

Kincaid wore her address as a medal of honour; when the luckless editor of the Sunday Press refused to print an earlier letter on the grounds of excessive length, Kincaid began her response by unsheathing the sharp edge of her research skills:

Dear Mr Feehan,

As you see, I have learned your name. I have also learned you are a South Tipperary man from Clonmel.

(The Dear Mr Feehan having omitted his name and address in his preceding rejection of her earlier letter, to no avail)

…and then by challenging him on his suspicious absence from the 71 Heytesbury Street Hall-of-Fame:

I met many men and some women from Clonmel in the old days of “71”; but I never heard of you. You must have been as young as myself – too young to do anything…What do you say?[4]

Feehan very sensibly did not venture an answer to that one.

Given her zeal for her brother-in-law’s cause, the historian Joe Ambrose decided that “Robinson clearly looked over Mrs Kincaid’s shoulder as she wrote” as if she was merely a convenient pen for Robinson.[5] But when comparing her letters with his, their writing styles were very different: his with a tendency towards long-windedness and waffling around the issue, while she wasted little time in getting to the point and going for the jugular. Whatever else one may think of the woman and her letters, she was a believer.

Making Claims

While not included in every letter of theirs, Robinson’s and Kincaid’s main points of contention were that Breen had been:

  1. Never elected Brigade O/C and had never obtained rank above that of Quartermaster.
  2. Not present in the attacks on the RIC barracks at Drangan or Hollyford, or indeed in charge of any fight.
  3. Wounded ‘only’ two times – once below the collar-bone, and the other through the calf – and not twenty-two times as claimed.[6]

The first two points will be addressed further in the article. The third one is hard to prove either way without access to Breen’s medical history, but as two bullet-wounds are still two more than what most people have had in their lives, it was perhaps unduly petty on Robinson’s part to make an issue out of it.

Nonetheless, it was an attack point Robinson pressed upon in a private letter to a friend. Writing in 1952, Robinson tarred Breen with the worst brush that a Fianna Fáil member and former Anti-Treatyite could tar another with: association with the ‘Staters’:

The Staters gave Dan Breen a house and a farm, gave him 200% of disability pension (he had only two bullet wounds in the whole of his I.R.A career in Ireland – wounds that healed up immediately and, why did these same Staters, when they got back to power as a coalition, in the first 24 hours, almost, of their existence rush through a bill through the Dáil granting him (not by name!) £3,000 for Doctors’ bills “contracted in the U.S.A.”[7]

The coalition mentioned had been the Inter-Party Government of John A. Costello. Twenty-eight years after the end of the Civil War and the opposition party was still ‘the Staters’. For Robinson, as with others, the past war had never really ended.

Robinson’s picking at this scab was perhaps aggravated by his own wrangles with medical pensions. In 1940, he applied for expenses for the damaging effects on his health caused by the irregular meals, damp conditions and the like from being on the run during his IRA days. This claim lingered in bureaucratic limbo until 1943, when a medical examination was arranged for Robinson in order to assess the validity of his claim. Robinson did not attend the appointment and when contacted further by the Army Pensions Board, dropped his claim altogether.[8]

North-Longford-Flying-Column-300x271
IRA/Irish Volunteers

Et Tu, Tipperary?

Breen’s enablers in what Robinson dubbed with entertaining bombast ‘the Great Tipperary Hoax’ were none the less than the people of Tipperary. Or so Robinson claimed in an unusual theory as to why his side of the story was not common knowledge already.

A native of Belfast, Robinson believed that the Tipperary people preferred to embrace one of their own, the Tipperary native Breen, as the hero in the War of Independence in their county. “Truth in a noose when it comes to trying to get any Tipperary man to expose the ‘Great Tipperary Hoax,” Robinson was supposed to have muttered to Kincaid upon hearing of how another of her letters had been rejected.[9]

Plaintively, Robinson professed to hold out hope that someday there would appear “some generous-minded Tipperary man to undo at least some of the ungenerous treatment I have received.”[10] As of yet, no such generous-minded native of Tipperary has emerged.

Who’s in Charge?

Robinson had been O/C of the Third Tipperary Brigade when it was formed in October 1918, with Seán Treacy as Vice Commandant, and Breen as Quartermaster. But Robinson was to frequently complain that Breen had falsely passed himself off as the O/C in Robinson’s place. The famous wanted poster of Breen, identifying him as the one who “calls himself Commandant of the Third Tipperary Brigade” was a particular source of frustration for Robinson, especially as it continued to be reprinted in books afterwards.[11]

Daniel_Breen_police_notice.jpg

As Robinson’s claim to fame was in large part his command of one of the most renowned fighting units in the War of Independence, it is understandable that such a hierarchical intrusion would infuriate him.

Breen did say in his memoir that he had been O/C but before Robinson, in the spring of 1918, prior to the official forming of the Brigade.[12] The wanted poster was printed after this time, when Breen was wanted for murder, so it can be explained by the authorities’ information being out of date.

Robinson insisted that Breen had never had a position higher than that of Quartermaster. But a contemporary, Patrick O’Dwyer, remembered Breen as the O/C around the time of October 1918, suggesting that Breen had held the post up to Robinson’s election.[13] Robinson was either wrong or refused to consider any Brigade position before that of October 1918 as legitimate.

The Man Not Present?

Perhaps the most serious claim of Robinson’s is that Breen lied in his memoir about being present at the assaults by the Third Tipperary Brigade on the Hollyford and Drangan Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) Barracks, the former on the May 1920 and the latter on June 1920.

Escape - O'Malley
Ernie O’Malley

A possible tie-breaker here is Ernie O’Malley, who helped lead the attacks on Hollyford and Drangan Barracks with Robinson. O’Malley wrote accounts of his own, first as in his War of Independence memoir, On Another Man’s Wound, published in 1936, and later a series of articles in the mid-1950s that were published under Raids and Rallies.[14]

In O’Malley’s accounts of the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, Breen does not appear in either, though he does in the assault on the Rearcross barracks, which Robinson did not deny. Had he been present at either Hollyford or Drangan, it would have been strange for Breen to have not made a mention of it, given how well know Breen would have been to O’Malley’s readers. Thus we may tentatively conclude that Breen did lie about having been present at the Hollyford-Drangan attacks, and that Robinson was entirely correct in this.

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Hollyford RIC Barracks

Father Colmcille

The letters collected in the Statement’s appendix pertain to a number of subjects from this period. Of those letters centring the ‘Danbreenofile’ distortion view of history – as Robinson, with his flair for phrase-making, put it – four were written by Robinson.[15] One was to the Irish Press, and had been refused publication. The other three were part of the same convoluted mission and require an explanation onto themselves.

While a casual reader browsing through the appendix may think at first that these three letters were unrelated except in subject material, they were written together in response to a planned book about the Third Tipperary Brigade by a Father An tAthair Colmcille. Samples of the text had been published in the Irish Press, and Robinson had had the chance to read a typescript of the book, given to him by Seán Fitzpatrick, his former Brigade adjutant, who had been asked to check it for inaccuracies by Father Colmcille. Robinson had his own opinion on its accuracy: “On the whole I prefer Buck Rodgers.”[16]

Robinson could have written to Colmcille directly but, for reasons known only to himself, did not. Perhaps he found the prospect too distasteful. Instead of this obvious route, Robinson instead had all three letters mailed together to Abbot Benignus Hickey of Mellifont Abbey in Co. Louth.

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Cistercian monastery, Mellifont Abbey, Co. Louth

The first letter was addressed to Abbot Hickey, asking him to pass on the second letter to Seán Fitzpatrick, then a resident of the Abbey, it would seem. It was an impressively long letter, and Fitzpatrick was treated to no less than two postscripts. The third letter was ostensibly addressed to W. F. O’Connell, secretary of the Soloheadbeg Memorial, with the intent of turning down a recent invitation but which was, at Robinson’s request to Hickey, to be passed on to Colmcille who was either another resident of the Abbey or in contact with its abbot.

As told to Abbot Hickey, the two letters to Fitzpatrick and O’Connell were intended to address the points in Colmcille’s upcoming publication. A good Catholic, Robinson made sure to stress that his rebuttals were intended for “Father Colmcille, the Tiperaryman-Historian – not the priest, God bless him,” and ending the letter to Hickey with a request that the Abbot pray for him.[17]

‘A Locker-Room of Deadly Shots’

That Colmcille was being singled out as an historian and not for anything else about him must have been scant comfort when reading remarks like: “I cannot make up my mind whether Father C. is simple (the virtue); or is a simpleton (within strict limits,” or threats of “a locker-room of deadly shots that I will discharge at his book.”[18] One can only speculate as to whether such remarks were intended to browbeat Colmcille into submission or if Robinson could not resist the chance to vent.

This triple-pack of letters prompted a mollifying response from Colmcille, who wrote with the wariness of a man moving slowly around a strange dog. Colmcille began by stressing that the typescript Robinson had read via Fitzpatrick had been a rough draft and not intended in any way to be publishable, a fact that Fitzpatrick was amiss for not making clear to Robinson. One could assume that this would be the last time Colmcille would ask Fitzpatrick for any editing favours.

The second defence was to deny any contact with Breen as a source, and minimise his use of Breen’s book for his own beyond a few quotes. Colmcille ended his letter with an invitation to forward his typescript to Robinson for any amendments he would want to make. If Robinson sent a reply, he did not include it in his BMH Statement, so we do not know what he made of Colmcille’s olive branch.

Motives?

Three other letters in the appendix were written by Kincaid to the Irish/Sunday Press, all refused publication. The reason given by the above Mr Feehan for refusing one of her letters was “pressures of space” and indeed the letter in question was a fairly long one, as were the letters in general.[19]

As all these letters to newspapers were rejected, it begs the question as to why either Robinson or Kincaid did not simply write shorter letters if they were so keen for Robinson’s version of events to be heard. It could be that the letters were never intended to be published. After all, that would have brought the ill feeling to public light, which would have been awkward given how the two men were both members of the same party in Fianna Fáil – Breen as a TD, Robinson as a trusted bureaucrat. Instead, it could be that Robinson passively-aggressively sabotaged his own efforts by intentionally making the letters too long for any editor to realistically consider printing them.

As for why write them at all, Joe Ambrose has suggested that even with the letters rejected, “the whole of Dublin would hear about their contents”, in a sort of guerrilla war by rumour. However, there is no indication that knowledge of the letters’ contents went beyond the offices of the Irish Press, let alone that that was Robinson’s intention.[20]

ambroseEqually questionable is Ambrose’s suggestion as to why Robinson added these letters to the appendix of his BMH Statement: “The result was a time bomb from another era, recently exploded, that was designed to wipe out Breen’s reputation and the credibility of his book.”[21]

As Robinson never hinted at any plan as long-term as that, or any plan at all, it is impossible to say for sure. An argument against this is how the BMH Statements were only to be made available upon the death of their last contributor, Robinson included, which was not to be until 2003, forty-two years after Robinson’s death in 1961.

A plan of vengeance whose culmination the perpetrator could not be around to enjoy could hardly be a satisfying one. But for a man with a lot to say, Robinson could be stubbornly opaque as to what he hoped to achieve. All a historian can do is shrug and apply a question-mark over his motives.

Books Make the Man

On a similar note, it is a mystery as to why Robinson, if he was so aggrieved at Breen’s use of memoir-writing to inflate his role, did not respond in kind and write his own? Robinson adopted a puzzled, almost irritated reaction to that sort of question:

Quite a large number of people have been asking me from time to time, mostly importunately, during the last thirty odd years to write my memoirs. Why, I don’t know.[22]

He mentioned in a letter his “manuscript notes for, perhaps, a book – certainly a statement,” indicating that he was at least entertaining the idea of a memoir.[23] The way the Statement was divided into chapters, with a prologue, separate chapters, and an appendix, further suggests that it was intended to be the makings of a publishable book.

Robinson had previously contributed an earlier Statement, in 1948, this one limited to specific themes in his revolutionary career:

  • His family, early years and Volunteer activities in Glasgow up to 1916.
  • A list of names of those in the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ of the Easter Rising.
  • His role in the Rising as part of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’.
  • A 1932 Evening Telegraph article on the Lord French Ambush, written by the then-Senator Robinson.[24]

This one was composed in 1948, nine years before Robinson wrote his main one in 1957. It is the shorter of the two, at 26 pages including newspaper clippings, while the material in the 1957 one totals 142.

Through the difference in the two Statements, one can see the writer’s progression from the short pieces in the first to a more complete narrative and arguments that make up the second. Also notable is how Breen is barely mentioned in the first, in contrast to the spleen displayed against him in the second. Presumably Robinson lacked the self-assurance to do his cause justice initially.

By the time he composed his second Statement, he had grown in confidence as a writer and in the certainty of himself as a wronged man. Robinson seemed to be building himself up to write something greater, perhaps a magnum opus of his life’s work and vindication?

But, ultimately, Robinson went no further. He never provided a book nor an answer as to why other than indifference on his own part, when of course Robinson was anything but indifferent. He clearly had the ability, time and passion to write a memoir of his own, and there was certainly a demand for stories from the War of Independence which Breen, O’Malley and others were happy to supply, but for whatever reason Robinson never followed suit.

Conclusion

The BMH Statement of Séumas Robinson is one of the most colourful to have emerged from the vaults of the Bureau of Military History. The reader is struck by the vitriol displayed by Robinson towards his colleague, Dan Breen, an indignation that formed around a number of claims Breen had made through his memoir: Breen had been Brigade O/C, he had been present at the assaults on a couple of RIC barracks, and he had exaggerated the extent of his injuries. Breen was enabled in his deception, or so Robinson believed, by the people of Tipperary who preferred to celebrate one of their own at the expense of the Belfast-born Robinson.

And so Robinson embarked on an underground literary career, assisted by his sister-in-law, in writing letters of complaint about Breen’s deceptions to an assortment of newspaper editors, historians and abbots. Why he did not pursue the same aims through more productive methods such as shorter letters or publishing his own memoirs is a mystery, as are his motives in general for his extensive, but ultimately futile, letter-writing campaign.

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (08/12/2014)

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

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

References

[1] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 3

[2] Ibid, p. 5

[3] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 95

[4] Ibid, p. 100

[5] Ambrose, Joe. Dan Breen and the IRA (Douglas Village, Cork: Mercier Press, 2006), p. 178

[6] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 87-88

[7] Ibid, pp. 121-122

[8] Robinson, Séumas, Military Service Pensions Acts 1949 (Accessed 29/11/2014)

[9] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 100

[10] Ibid, p. 119

[11] Ibid, pp. 86, 125, 128-129

[12] Breen, Dan. My Fight for Irish Freedom (Cork: Mercier Press, 2010), p. 19

[13] O’Dwyer, Patrick H. (BMH / WS 1432), p. 6

[14] 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)

[15] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 118. In case one wonders what the ‘usual concomitant’ of this is, it is ‘S.R.-opobia’.

[16] Ibid, p. 127

[17] Ibid, p. 117

[18] Ibid, p. 118, 119

[19] Ibid,  p. 99

[20] Ambrose, p. 178

[21] Ibid

[22] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 3

[23] Ibid, p. 101

[24] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 156)

 

Bibliography

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

O’Dwyer, Patrick H., WS 1432

Robinson, Séumas, WS 156

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Books

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

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)

Military Service Pensions Acts 1949

Robinson, Séumas (Accessed 29/11/2014)

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

Future Plans

Sean_OMuirthile_caricature
Seán Ó Muirthile caricature

By January 1923, with the Irish Civil War still ongoing, Seán Ó Muirthile was a busy man as Quartermaster General of the Free State Army. 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).

Some prominent army officers had been wondering amongst themselves about the future of the Brotherhood to which they had previously belonged. In theory they still did, but the Supreme Council of the IRB had not met since the January of the previous year, and neither had there been meetings of the local branches throughout Ireland. The policy had been to await events and then set about re-uniting the Organisation, as insiders were supposed to refer to it. If the time for this was not now, then when?

It was entirely natural that these officers would bring such concerns to Ó Muirthile. He was, after all, one of the few remaining members of the Supreme Council still around, not to mention a former confidant of the late, great Michael Collins.

Commander_Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

Commander-in-Chief of the Army as well as President of the IRB, Collins had exemplified the dual role of soldier and operative that many in the Army were eager to emulate. Certainly, Ó Muirthile had little doubt that Collins, had he lived, would have continued using the Organisation in the pursuit of achieving further freedom for Ireland.[1]

First Steps

With these questions in mind, Ó Muirthile consulted the other Supreme Council members who were also serving in the Army. The basic points that were agreed upon in their January meeting were that:

  • The proud tradition of the IRB should be preserved and passed onto those loyal to the Free State government.
  • This effort would fall upon the previous members of the Supreme Council.
  • The Free State government must not be prejudiced or subverted in any way even if any members of its Executive Council were also in the IRB.

The seriousness of this last point is an open question. The past record of the IRB did not indicate an unwillingness to wield its underground influence on the other bodies it had infiltrated, whether they were the Irish Volunteers, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin or others. Whether the Free State Army would be the exception, however, would remain to be seen, as there was still plenty of work to be done on the first two points.

This was begun in earnest a few weeks later. The matter of a revived IRB was put to a number of army officers stationed in Dublin who had also been IRB Centres, or junior officers (each Centre being in charge of a Circle, the basic unit of the IRB, consisting of no more than 10 members). The feedback was positive, with the consensus of opinion being that these proposals could be put into effect.

The only caveat was that a new constitution should be written to accommodate IRB men serving in the Army. After an existence on the outskirts of power, the fraternity would have to adjust to being on the inside.[2]

A New Constitution

A copy of such a constitution gives an idea as to how this accommodation could have been managed. Titled ‘I.R.B. Constitution – 1923 (Provisional?)’, it can be found in the papers of Florence O’Donoghue. Once a prominent IRB/IRA officer, he had dropped out of both, disillusioned by the fratricide of the Civil War.

The document had been sent to O’Donoghue by a “D. Lynch”, possibly Diarmuid Lynch, another former IRB man. Whoever the sender, he had noted at the top of the document: “This copy was made by me of the new official draft (which I was not supposed to have seen).”

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Richard Mulcahy

Another annotation in the margins identified Ó Muirthile and General Richard Mulcahy as the ones who had presented this proposed constitution to the Army. Truly, this revived IRB was moving in elevated circles.

The successor to Michael Collins as the Commander-in-Chief, Mulcahy had also sat on the IRB Supreme Council with Ó Muirthile before the Civil War. It was a sign that the new IRB would be continuing with the old leadership.

Much of the document is a rehash of material from past IRB constitutions. This is unsurprising, given that it was supposed to be building on an already established society, but there are some noteworthy, not to say disturbing, innovations.

One such is the Clause 13(b): in addition to the Divisions for different Irish counties (15 and a 16th for Great Britain) as before, there were to be eleven parallel Divisions for the Army, each based on a different command post. The 1st Division encompassed G.H.Q., the second was for the Dublin Command, the third for the Curragh Command, and so on.

To no other institution in the Free State did the Constitution pay such particular attention; as far as the new IRB was concerned, the Army was very much its territory, to be managed accordingly.

While the groupings of the rest of the Organisation consisted of ‘Circles’, those within the Army would be ‘Clubs’ but otherwise would follow the same arrangements, with the Clubs not exceeding ten members unless authorised by the Supreme Council, and each to be headed by a Centre who would report up the IRB chain of command. The new additions were intended to work seamlessly with the old, an exception being that a Club member could not also be in a civilian Circle.

Every Power and Movement in the Nation

The Supreme Council was to be expanded accordingly. There would be twenty-eight members, as opposed to the fifteen in the 1920 Constitution: one from each of the sixteen Divisions covering the country, and eight out of the eleven Army Divisions. The remaining four would be co-opted by the remainder.

Thus constituted, the Supreme Council would be ready to pursue its stated aims:

Objects 1. The objects of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (hereinafter sometimes called “The Organisation”) shall be: – To establish and maintain a free and independent Republican Government in Ireland.

Policy 2(a) Whereas National Sovereignty is inherent and inalienable and, while acknowledging that political authority is exercised through instruments legitimately expressed, the Irish Republican Brotherhood pledges itself the custodies of the Republican Ideal – the traditional expression of National Independence.

(b) The policy of the IRB shall be to utilise every power and movement in the Nation, it shall influence them in their activities so as to secure that the maximum organised strength of the Nation – armed, economic, political, social and otherwise shall be at all times available for the achievement of its objects.[3]

It is hard to say how much of a finished product this document was intended to be: a rough draft or the final instructions. But it is not the proclamation of an organisation that was planning on going away anytime soon.

Instead, it showed a leadership that was thinking in the long term. It was prepared to be innovative, with its expanded Supreme Council and the formation of ‘Clubs’ to fulfil the role of Circles’. But in its assurance of itself as the only true keeper of the Republican flame and the willingness to use others in the pursuit of that self-appointed mission, it had revealed itself as very much the IRB of old.

Tom Barry’s Plea

ohegarty1
Seán O’Hegarty

Ó Muirthile and his Army colleagues were not the only ones considering what a resuscitated IRB could bring. Four months after agreeing to revive the Organisation, Ó Muirthile had an appointment in his office with Seán O’Hegarty in May 1923.

The former O/C of the Cork 1st Brigade, O’Hegarty had remained neutral during the Civil War, though he remained in close contact with many of his former comrades. It was on behalf of one of these compatriots, Tom Barry, the famed leader of the West Cork Flying Column, that O’Hegarty had asked for the meeting.

O’Hegarty delivered to Ó Muirthile a letter written by Barry. Announcing himself as “an officer in the Organisation in County Cork”, Barry appealed to the pro-Treaty IRB to use its influence towards stopping the manhunt of the embattled Anti-Treatyites, many of whom, like Barry, considered themselves as much a part of the Brotherhood as their Free State counterparts. The Brotherhood, Barry argued, should come together again as one body in order to not lose sight of its ideals, particularly as there was still work to be done for the Republic.

Beneath the stirring rhetoric, Barry was counting on the IRB to facilitate an honourable climb-down for both sides. As far as Ó Muirthile was concerned, that horse had well and truly left the stable. Another prominent Anti-Treatyite, Liam Deasy, had already signed a public document while imprisoned, urging his partisans to surrender themselves and their arms to the Free State. Ó Muirthile curtly declined to pass on Barry’s message to the rest of the Army Council and told O’Hegarty that if the Anti-Treatyites had any interest in stopping the fight, they should consider Deasy’s example.

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Tom Barry

For Ó Muirthile, the only value of the meeting was how it revealed the depths of the despair among the Anti-Treatyites. If a fighter like Barry was close to breaking point, then there was little hope for the rest. Contrary to what he told O’Hegarty, he did discuss the matter with Mulcahy and the rest of the Army Council. They likewise were indifferent, and nothing was passed onto the government.

Barry’s hopes for the Brotherhood as a bridge between the two sides had been mired in sentimentality and wishful thinking. Ó Muirthile’s dismissal was pitiless but clear-headed. From then on, any new incarnation of the IRB would be formed on the Army’s terms.[4]

Roads Not Taken

While a failure, Barry’s letter did provide a convenient excuse when the re-emergence of the IRB became public knowledge in the wake of the Army Mutiny of 1924. Speaking to the Dáil on the 26th June 1924, Richard Mulcahy quoted a note he had made shortly after learning of the offer from Ó Muirthile, with the following points:

1. The Anti-Treatyites had tried to form their own IRB to strengthen their grip on their members.
2. That Barry’s letter was addressed to the Supreme Council showed his recognition of its authority.
3. That the letter came from Barry was particularly important given his reputation as a fighter.
4. The IRB might be utilised as a body for which the Anti-Treatyites could acquiesce in terms of them disbanding without humiliation.
5. That there was no group other than the IRB in such a position made the situation a delicate one.[5]

FSAThe first point is a peculiar one as there had been nothing in Barry’s letter about attempts among the Anti-Treatyites at forming a counter-IRB. It is possible that Mulcahy had heard about the musings of Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, about reforming the IRB Supreme Council, and the Brotherhood in general, along Anti-Treatyite lines.[6]

Although nothing came of such plans, they showed that the IRB was still indeed considered a valid institution by many on the Anti-Treaty side, and that Mulcahy’s hopes were not entirely without substance.

Mulcahy made a second note a few days later, expanding on his original thoughts:

1. The Anti-Treatyite IRA was at a dead end as a body and should disband, with only the IRB able to provide a pivotal point to arrange this.
2. The IRB was fully controlled by the Army Council. It was possible that within a couple of years, the IRB could evolve into an open political society, much like the Irish Volunteers had done.
3. While the Government might not want to associate with a secret society like the IRB, it was essential that the state control the moulding of the Organisation, both as a constructive entity and as a means for penitent Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Civil War with honour.[7]

The problem with these noble-sounding, if wistful, ambitions is that there is no evidence of any attempts to put them into practice. Ó Muirthile’s later account made it clear that the reaction of the Army Council, including Mulcahy, towards the letter was an imperious, if not contemptuous, one – hardly the best basis for an IRB outreach programme.

Whether the IRB could become an open society and not a secret one, using the Irish Volunteers as its template, is a question that would never be answered. However, there is nothing in the 1923 Constitution to suggest any such leanings. If anything, the old oath to keep the secrets of the Brotherhood and the right of the Supreme Council to punish any errant members remained on paper.

As for the notion of the state being allowed to guide the IRB, that would again be in contrast to the list of goals in the 1923 Constitution which made it plain that the new role of the Organisation was to be the other way around. Far from being given the keys to the Brotherhood, state ministers were kept in the dark for long as they could be.

Suspicious of rumours he was hearing about Army officers being summoned from all over the country to sit in secret sessions, the Minister of Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, confronted Mulcahy in February 1923. With no small amount of chutzpah, the general blandly denied that there was anything behind such reports.

Mucahy’s statements to the Dáil must thus be seen as excuses and rationalisations after the fact, for all the evidence points to the IRB being for the IRB first and foremost.

Kevin O’Higgins Concerns

This revived IRB was to be very much an elitist affair. The informal meetings that Ó Muirthile had characterised the IRB revival had been between those with previous experience in the administrative roles for the Organisation. Ó Muirthile took care to consult former Supreme Council members and IRB officers but made no effort to reach out to ordinary initiates.

FSA2This was more than mere thoughtless but part of a glass-ceiling policy. As he described later in his memoirs, Ó Muirthile did not think it wise to be indiscriminate in the shaping of the new Brotherhood. This cartel within a cabal soon led to resentment among those on the outside, a simmering discontent that would have ruinous consequences for all concerned.[8]

But before that, Ó Muirthile had more immediate worries. Shortly after seeing O’Hegarty, Ó Muirthile heard that Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Justice, had found out about the efforts within the Army to revive the IRB. Wishing to head off any future problems, Ó Muirthile discussed the matter with Mulcahy, and they agreed to invite O’Higgins to a meeting where they could soothe his fears.

As O’Higgins later recalled, Mulcahy came to him “in a purely personal way” which the minister found distasteful. Another bit of overfamiliarity was how the general referred to Seán Ó Muirthile by name rather than by his rank of Lieutenant-General. O’Higgins made his displeasure plain at the subject of the IRB. He may also have been a member in the pre-Truce days but now, secret societies could only be detrimental to the state of the Army, not to mention the country. Mulcahy accepted this but asked O’Higgins to come along to the meeting all the same.[9]

It was on this unpromising start that the meeting was held on the 10th July in the office of President W.T. Cosgrave. Cosgrave was present along with O’Higgins and the Minister for Education, Eoin MacNeill. Representing the IRB were Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy. Ó Muirthile began by bringing up the subject of Tom Barry’s letter, which was discussed in a general way by those present but resulted in nothing definite.

The talk then turned to the IRB. Ó Muirthile was happy to outline to his audience the activities of the society before and after the Treaty. He was to leave the meeting confident that the ministers had understood his position and accepted the IRB as part of the new state of affairs.

On that score, however, Ó Muirthile was to be very, very much so mistaken.[10]

A Conspiracy against the Conspiracy

Liam-Tobin1
Liam Tobin

Another erroneous assumption on Ó Muirthile’s part was that the junior IRB members who found themselves disenfranchised would passively acquiesce. A rival faction was formed out of these frustrations: the IRA Organisation (IRAO), also called the Old IRA or the Tobin Gang after Liam Tobin, one of its ringleaders and a former gunman in Michael Collins’ Squad.

Tobin added the foreword to The Truth about the Army Crisis, the document disseminated by the IRAO to explain its motives and grievances. The impact The Truth had on a wider audience is doubtful, and there no evidence that it rallied any segment of the Irish public to its cause, but it does reveal much about the conflict between the IRAO and the IRB, how they differed and, more importantly, where the groups overlapped.

The main difference between The Truth’s and Ó Muirthile’s version of events is which group came first: the IRB or the IRAO. According to the former, the IRB had never gone away to begin with, and was keen to stress the continuity between the ideals of the IRB of old and the aspirations of the new:

The big majority of the (IRB) members…accepted the Treaty as a means towards complete independence, and felt, when they joined the Free State Army, that they were acting in accordance with the spirit and tradition of the Brotherhood, and, of course, they all had the continuity of the Organisation in mind.[11]

The appearance of the IRAO seems almost incidental in Ó Muirthile’s account. He went so far as to deny that the two factions were rivals.[12] This seems highly disingenuous in light of the IRAO’s insistence that their insubordination against the Army Council was fuelled by the hostility of the IRB, which they clearly equated with the Council.

In The Truth, the new IRB was not created until after the IRAO had already been set up. Alarmed by the banding together of those soldiers who were dissatisfied with the direction the Army was taking, the Army Council set up what it called the IRB in order to counteract the IRAO’s counteractions. These efforts culminated in an ultimatum from one of the Army Council to the new group: “Drop your organisation and we will drop ours.”[13]

FSA3

The Truth drips with contempt at the idea that the new so-called Irish Republican Brotherhood could ever call itself as such. If it was truly the IRB of old, the reader is asked, why were the IRAO members not advised on its re-organisation, considering how they had been IRB members from before. Clearly, the disgruntled soldiers saw nothing wrong with the reappearance of the IRB, just that they had not been invited to the party.

Also revealing is the language in The Truth. With its talk of the “national ideal” and what should be done for “the Nation”, not to mention the liberal invoking of Michael Collins’ name, the self-righteous, self-assured tone of the IRAO were more than a little reminiscent of that used in the 1923 IRB Constitution. Whatever their differences, the two societies were reading from the same hymn sheet.[14]

A Continuity IRB?

While neither is unpartisan in their accounts, Ó Muirthile’s and the IRAO’s are in agreement in how both groups discussed a merger as a way of resolving the conflict. According to Ó Muirthile, this never got beyond the talking stage due to the same prejudice the IRB showed towards any prospective members who had not held a senior role from before.[15]

The Truth was more detailed about the series of talks and meetings which the IRAO came to believe were merely stalling tactics on the part of the IRB. Mulcahy at one point promised the IRAO places on the IRB Supreme Council. This was not kept. Another meeting between the IRAO and the IRB, the former in the persons of Mulcahy and Ó Muirthile, saw the same promise of representation on the Supreme Council made. When pressed, however, Ó Muirthile admitted that this would only amount to one placement. Once again, even this meagre promise fell through.[16]

It was not until the IRAO saw that the IRB had no intention of releasing even a finger of its grip on Army policy that it concluded that further negotiations were futile and took steps towards what would become the Army Mutiny of 1924. In this, The Truth is almost certainly reliable. For all its self-aggrandising, the IRAO would most likely have been content with a relaxation of the monopoly held by the IRB on the upper echelons of the Army.

This would not have meant the end of the monopoly, however, merely more stakeholders in it. Neither the IRB nor the IRAO disagreed with the issue of control, just who should have the rights to it.

In the resulting inquiry into the Mutiny and the discussions in the Dáil, the IRB was characterised as having been revived or re-organised as if this IRB was a new incarnation of the old. However, there are grounds to believe that this IRB was in fact a continuation of the same. That men like Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy, who had sat on the Supreme Council during the Treaty talks, remained on as senior members of the IRB within the Army to the point of writing the new constitution, suggests that nothing had intended to change.

While there is no reason to disbelieve Ó Muirthile when he said that there had been no meetings of the IRB between January 1922 and the start of 1923, this is more likely due to a lack of opportunity and the confusion brought about the split from the Civil War than the death of the old IRB. That the IRAO mutineers had been IRB members from before the Treaty and had expected the new IRB to continue treating them as insiders suggests that while the pecking order had changed, the mindset of Organisation members had not.

The End

The results of the Mutiny were the ending of the military careers of both the mutineers and the Army Council. Mulcahy was to endure the lambasting of the man he had attempted to deceive, Kevin O’Higgins, who was quick to levy blame on the Army heads who had tried playing at secret societies.

Kevin-O-Higgins
Kevin O’Higgins

O’Higgins was to describe to the Dáil a very different interpretation to Ó Muirthile’s of the meeting in President Cosgrave’s office on the 10th July 1923. Ó Muirthile was to insist that he had left the meeting confident that everyone was on board with the IRB. But according to O’Higgins, both Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy had at no point specified the IRB as actually in existence. They had instead opaquely described it only as an option. O’Higgins had used the meeting to denounce any revived IRB, option or not, likening it to a Tammany Hall that would make puppets of all in the Dáil.[17]

Or so O’Higgins told the Dáil. It is possible that, like any good public speaker, O’Higgins was tailoring his message to the audience. However, the revived IRB seems to have made no effort to reconnect with its members in the Dáil, being content to keep itself a military franchise. Perhaps Ó Muirthile had been sincere after all when he said that the intention when reviving the IRB was not to subvert the government.

Whether out of myopia or principle, this attitude would cost the Brotherhood dear. Having entwined itself so tightly with the Army, the IRB was unable to survive when expelled from it. There would be no further efforts to resuscitate the Organisation after 1924. Whatever dreams or ambitions it had had for itself, in the new Ireland they would wither on the vine.

Post Brotherhood

Whichever was the more accurate account of that meeting in the President’s office, O’Higgins was to have the last word. Ó Muirthile lost his rank as Quartermaster General. A business venture in Dublin failed, and he returned to his home village in Leap, Work Cork. There, he resumed his previous job as an Irish language teacher, and set to work writing a book. Part memoir, part history and part apologia, it was never published and remains largely forgotten in UCD Archives other than the occasional appearance in a footnote of a more successful book.[18]

Mulcahy was also to lose his position as Commander-in-Chief. He continued in politics but, as late as 1932, the embarrassment of his past associations was used against him. Mulcahy attempted to make additions to the Army Pensions Bill by Fianna Fáil that would have debarred members of certain illegal organisations. By this, Mulcahy meant the IRA, which was then in an informal alliance with the new ruling party. Frank Aiken as Minister for Defence retorted by reminding Mulcahy of the time he had helped to facilitate another certain illegal organisation. Mulcahy’s motion was lost by 65 to 45.[19]

 

Originally posted on The Irish Story (29/06/2015)

 

See also:

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

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

 

References

[1] P7a/209, University College Dublin – Richard Mulcahy Papers, p. 177

[2] Ibid, p. 299

[3] National Library of Ireland – Florence O’Donoghue Papers, MS 31,236 ; the 1920 Constitution at MS 31,233

[4] P7a/209, pp. 220-223

[5] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3121-3122 (23 June 1924)

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

[7] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3123-3124 (23 June 1924)

[8] P7a/209, p.253

[9] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3157-3158 (23 June 1924)

[10] P7a/209, p.229

[11] Ibid, p.177

[12] Ibid, p.253

[13] The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin (Dublin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation [1924]), p. 4

[14] Ibid, p.6

[15] P7a/209, p.275

[16] The Truth About the Army Crisis, p. 6

[17] Dáil Report, Volume 7, Columns 3158-3159

[18] Southern Star, 15/11/1997

[19] Irish Independent, 28/10/1932

 

Bibliography

University College Dublin – Richard Mulcahy Papers

P7a/209

National Library of Ireland – Florence O’Donoghue Papers

MS 31,233

MS 31,236

MS 31,240

Publications

The Truth About the Army Crisis (Official), with a foreword by Major-General Liam Tobin (Dublin, issued by the Irish Republican Army Organisation [1924])

Dáil Report

Volume 7, 26 June 1924

Newspapers

Irish Independent, 28/10/1932

Southern Star, 15/11/1997

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

The Savonarola

Of the voices raised against the Treaty during the Dáil debates in January 1922, few were more strident than that of Séumas Robinson. He came with impeccable credentials, both political and military, being the TD for East Tipperary-Waterford as well as the O/C to the 3rd Tipperary Brigade.

Not that Robinson was above opening his address with a joke:

In my own plain, direct, if not too lucid way, I would like to fire a few shots at the Treaty – metaphorically speaking.

Seumas-Robinson-1
Séumas Robinson

The Republic was at stake, Robinson continued, and if the reputations of certain people would have to be ruined for its sake, then so be it. The people whose reputations he had in mind were doubtlessly the plenipotentiaries who had returned from London with the hated Treaty in hand – two of whom would feel the edge of Robinson’s tongue before he was done.

To Robinson, this despicable compromise was no recent thing. It had had its conception three years ago when the Irish Volunteers had been denied a general convention and thus the chance to have a proper say in matters. The compromise had continued into its embryonic form when the Volunteers had come under the authority of the Dublin GHQ, further neutering them of their independence.

The proto-compromise had passed into its chrysalis form (with Robinson mixing his birthing metaphors here) when GHQ began paying a wage to its soldiers – distasteful enough for the puritanical Robinson – without providing any appreciable military assistance to go with it, an oversight which he was not about to forgive.

The end result of these machinations was the Treaty under discussion. Like all compromises, Robinson concluded, it was like a mule in that it was barren. For all his keenness to portray himself as a bluff, no-nonsense man of action, Robinson could not resist the occasional rhetorical flourish.

The Martinet

In contrast to the gombeen ways of GHQ were the high-minded principles of the Volunteers, men for whom ideals and symbols were worthwhile things in themselves, whatever anyone else thought. As far as Robinson was concerned, they had been refused a voice for too long. So that the assembled deputies would be in no doubt as to where the Volunteers stood on the matter of the Treaty, Robinson read out a letter he had received that day.

It was from a number of IRA officers, first denying the rumours that they were favourable to the Treaty and, secondly, reaffirming their allegiance to the Republic, which in the context of the debate could only mean a stand against the Treaty. The names of the signatories were given, along with – ominously enough – the units within the IRA that they commanded: Liam Lynch of the 1st Southern Division, Ernie O’Malley of the 2nd Southern Division, Oscar Traynor of the Dublin Brigade, and Michael McCormack of the 3rd Southern Division.

If Robinson had been hoping for a stir amongst his audience, he succeeded. Richard Hayes TD retorted that the letter did not speak for his constituency of East Limerick and he doubted that it spoke for the other Divisional Commandants either. Even Éamon de Valera, no proponent for the Treaty, felt obliged to step in to say that it was scarcely right for any officer to be using the name of the army like that.

Somewhat mollified, Robinson admitted that reading out such a letter may have seemed a thoughtless thing to do. But he was not prepared to back down on this point, not even against the Chief:

De Valera: I would ask that the army be allowed to keep its discipline.

Robinson: The army has always been regarded as the army pure and simple. I submit that it is not so. If we had no political outlook we would not be soldiers at all.

De Valera: I know that they are citizen-soldiers. The point is that bringing them up as Brigades is not wise.

Robinson: I think the Volunteers have been very badly treated. The Volunteers demand a veto on the change of our country’s constitution. We are not a national army in the ordinary sense; we are not a machine pure and simple; we have political views as soldiers. For the purpose of this veto I here demand a general convention of the Volunteers.[1]

Robinson’s speech was remembered admiringly for years afterwards by his fellow Anti-Treatyites, even those who did not normally give him the benefit of the doubt. Dan Breen broke his usual policy of never saying anything complimentary about his former O/C when he described how Robinson had “very properly reminded” the Dáil about the right of the IRA to hold political views.[2]

Todd Andrews did not think too much of the famous Soloheadbeg ambush that helped make Robinson’s name, downplaying it as “an operation that just went wrong.” However, one of the few positive impressions he took away from watching the Dáil debates was Robinson’s speech which cheered him and “totally expressed my feeling.”[3]

The Accuser

Michael_Collins
Michael Collins

As if the threat of military subordination was not fiery enough, Robinson laid into the two men he held responsible for the deplorable state of affairs: Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith, the mother and the father of the Treaty respectively as Robinson dubbed them. What followed was pithily summed up by the Freeman’s Journal as a “personal attack on Mr. Collins, belittling the latter’s part in the War.”[4]

This was not an ad hominem attack for the sake of it. Robinson quoted an earlier speaker, Patrick MacCartan, on how he had said he could understand support for the Treaty on the basis that “what is good enough for Michael Collins is good enough for me.” Arthur Griffith has gone as far as to describe his fellow plenipotentiary as “the man who had won the war.”

If the Treaty was to be argued for on the basis of one man’s personal qualities, then it was only fair to stand against it on that same basis and, to Robinson, the Collins he had been hearing so much about had nothing in common with the Collins who had signed the Treaty. The former was a fictional construct, the other a weak and unworthy man who had done nothing to warrant the laurels heaped on him.

Kevin O’Higgins felt obliged to speak out: “Are we discussing Michael Collins or the Treaty?”

“Or are we impeaching him?” said another deputy, meaning Collins. Even if the question was meant rhetorically, Robinson was happy to take it up, pointing out that the plenipotentiaries were already in the dock in a manner of speaking. It was a trial in which Robinson was determined to act as prosecutor even if the Speaker of the Dáil, Eoin MacNeill, questioned the relevance: “I think it is as near not discussing the Treaty as possible.”

Undeterred, Robinson delivered what he hoped would be his coup de grâce to the opposing faction: that the plenipotentiaries appeared to be guilty of nothing less than treason. Before pressing on, Robinson assured his listeners that he would confine his arguments to the facts …before proceeding with a speculation on the motives of the opposing signatories to the Treaty: Arthur Griffith and the British Prime Minister, David Lloyd George.

The Hardliner

griffith
Arthur Griffith

Both leaders, so Robinson argued, had come to the conclusion that they could not overcome the other in negotiations. So that they could both bring a result of sorts to their respective cabinets, Griffith and Lloyd George agreed between them to give Ireland Dominion status, or Dominion Home Rule as Robinson termed it, the reference to the former, now discredited, attempt at self-rule being no accident.

The talks in London, along with the Prime Minister’s talk of a “terrible and immediate war” if they fell through, were thus all playacting on the part of Griffith and Lloyd George, with Collins as an enabler, for the benefit of the gullible.

Robinson finished his hypothesis with the suggestion that Griffith and Collins were open to the charge of treason: “No doubt,” he said:

They will give a satisfactory explanation of their efforts; and I would be more than delighted to withdraw any imputation that my words may unjustly convey. I think they should thank me for saying openly what is in the minds of many.

That Collins or Griffith would be thanking Robinson was as unlikely as him withdrawing his imputations any time soon, delightedly or otherwise.

His piece done, Robinson sat down and relinquished the floor. It went to the next speaker and then the next, as it would continue to do so for a very long time that day and the following one before the final vote.[5]

Amidst the heated atmosphere of the debates, Robinson’s vitriol was not unique. Cathal Brugha’s own personal attack on Collins was enough, some thought, to lose the anti-Treaty cause key votes. His speech did, however, mark Robinson as one of the hardliners. When the Dáil voted at 64-57 in favour of the Treaty, his name was down unsurprisingly as one of the ‘no’ votes.[6]

The Renegade

Robinson’s opposition to the Treaty was in no small part the complaint of a put-upon groundling against his aloof and feckless superiors. But then, Robinson had already displayed a contentious attitude towards authority.

Sometime after the Truce had come into effect, he had discussed with a number of others the possibility of obtaining weapons from Germany in anticipation of renewed hostilities. During these talks, Robinson had outlined his sense of the military situation facing him: the Crown forces had largely withdrawn to their barracks and while this limited their options, it also made them near untouchable.

Robinson had hoped that the German mission could result in the IRA acquiring the necessary equipment to breach fortifications such as trench mortars. Robinson warned the others not to inform anyone of their plans as they were going over the heads of GHQ. Their superiors in Dublin, Robinson was sure, were not sufficiently active in procuring weapons, particularly for the county divisions such as Robinson’s.

The visit to Germany was to prove a failure and none of the hoped-for armaments were brought over. That Robinson had not trusted his commanders to the point of keeping them in the dark did not bode well for future relations.[7]

The Usurper

Another act of independence, this time against a different sort of authority, had been Robinson’s selection as the Sinn Féin candidate for East Tipperary-Waterford in the 1921 elections. Not that he cared particularly. As he was to make clear in the Dáil, he considered himself a soldier first and foremost. In his later Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement, Robinson made only a passing reference to how “the Volunteers asked me to stand for election.”[8]

Robinson went on to win the seat, although not entirely unopposed. Sinn Féin party headquarters had had another candidate in mind and were only told about the change in plans a few days before the election. Sinn Féin demanded a full explanation but, judging by how the subject did not feature again in the party minutes, never received one.

It was, in any case, a fait accompli. Central authority had been unable, according to historian Michael Laffan, to “influence the decisions of locally dominant Volunteers.” It had been unable to deter Robinson, either.[9]

The Logician

Robinson had arrived in Dublin on the eve of the Dáil debates in time to meet up with a few other IRA leaders who would go on to join him against the Treaty: Ernie O’Malley, Liam Lynch, Rory O’Connor and Liam Mellows.

Ernie OMalley passport photo 1925
Ernie O’Malley

With GHQ identified as the problem, Robinson and O’Malley agreed with O’Connor’s suggestion of breaking away from their central command as soon as the Dáil debates were over, none of them having much hope in how the talks would go. The more cautious Mellows counselled them to wait and see how the situation developed and it was on that circumspect note that the band broke up for the night.

Of the group, O’Malley knew Robinson the best, having fought alongside him on a couple of occasions during the War of Independence. He was to leave a vivid depiction of Robinson on the night before the debates:

Seamus was dogged. His hair was tousled. He held his clenched fist underneath his underlip. Somehow he had sensed that one day something would go wrong…Seamus had too much of the French kind of inquiring, critical logic.[10]

O’Malley had witnessed a display of Robinson’s ‘French’ logic before, when the latter had objected to the IRA oath pledging allegiance to the Dáil. Robinson had been concerned that the Dáil might in the future settle for something short of a republic, a worry O’Malley had brushed off with a laugh. Somehow, Robinson was to refrain from a ‘told you so’.[11]

The Dreamer

The day after the Dáil approved the Treaty as feared, Robinson joined Mellows and some others for a gloomy little gathering. As one of the attendees, Robert Briscoe, later described the scene:

We were as despairing as only ardent young men can be; for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost and life had no more meaning. “What next? What next?” we asked each other and ourselves.

As none of them felt like remaining in Ireland to watch their country become re-enslaved, it was suggested they go abroad and find some other place in which to continue the fight against Perfidious Albion.

Robinson proposed India. There, they could pass on their experiences of guerrilla warfare which, when allied with the country’s vast population, would give these aspiring Wild Geese a chance to strike a substitute blow for freedom.

His suggestion provoked an outburst of genuine enthusiasm; so volatile are we Irish that it takes but a spark of courage to rekindle hope. However, it went no further because developments at home took another shape.

Despite Briscoe’s assurances to his reader that the ardour for such a farfetched scheme was sincere, it is unlikely that it was entirely serious or the whole session was anything more than an outlet to vent frustration.[12]

The Comrade

Robinson was to enjoy during this period a camaraderie with several leading figures in Ireland’s left-wing scene, such as Mellows and Roddy Connolly. The son of the Easter Rising martyr, Connolly had been one of those Robinson sent to Germany to procure weapons, as part of which he used his connections with the Communist Party of Ireland (CPI) to obtain forged passports.[13]

james_connolly_swf
James Connolly

As a sign of how small the revolutionary social circles could be, Connolly’s sister, Ina, had known Robinson’s brother, Joseph, from their families’ time in Belfast. The family patriarch, James Connolly, would remember Séumas when they met during the Easter Rising, a wounded Connolly cheerfully calling out: “Help, Towney!” to the younger man as a reference to their common association with Belfast and Glasgow. Robinson would describe James with affection as a “man’s man in every fibre of his body and mind.”[14]

It is thus perhaps unsurprising that Robinson and Roddy Connolly bonded but politics as well as shared history connected them. Connolly would refer to Robinson in a 1922 article as someone who “describes himself as a ‘Social Republican.’”[15]

Another association was Frank Robbins, a sergeant in the Irish Citizens’ Army (ICA), who met Robinson as part of a delegation from the Volunteers sometime between the Easter Rising and 1918. The subject of discussion was the possibility of greater cooperation between the ICA and the Volunteers. Although nothing came of these talks, Robbins remembered them as having been open and frank, and he felt he knew Robinson very well by the time of the Treaty.[16]

The Social Republican

mellows
Liam Mellows

Robbins gave no indication as to Robinson’s political orientation and Connolly did not elaborate on the label of ‘Social Republican’. More telling is a conversation Robbins had with Mellows in April 1922 during the latter’s occupation of the Four Courts. The two were discussing the merits of the Treaty – Robbins was for it – when Mellows asked as an aside: “Did you hear of all the soviets Seamus has established down in Tipperary?”

Robbins did not press for details, seeing it as an attempt by Mellows to change the subject. For his part, Mellows was uninformed as there is nothing to suggest that the wave of short-lived co-ops set up over the south of Ireland were anything other than local initiatives. Based as he was in Dublin at this time, Robinson would have been poorly placed to provide any input to these budding soviets even if there had been a central authority behind them. All the same, it was noteworthy that Mellows thought of Robinson as enough of a fellow traveller to be a plausible instigator of a social revolution.[17]

By the time Robinson spoke for himself in his 1957 BMH Statement, he preferred to muse on the inherent superiority of Catholic theology, the self-evident truth that Catholicism is the only infallible guide against the nihilistic horrors of atheism and how religious education was insufficiently taught in schools. Whatever youthful experimentation he had had with radical politics was left unspoken.[18]

The Subordinate

Close as he was to Mellows, O’Malley and Connolly, Robinson could not bridge the gap between him and the man whose opinion was to matter most amongst the Anti-Treatyites.

Liam-Lynch
Liam Lynch

Robinson first met Liam Lynch in October 1920 to discuss the problem of British patrols raiding into Co. Cork from their base in Cahir. As Cahir was in Robinson’s territory, Lynch informed the other O/C that stopping the enemy raids was his responsibility. Robinson replied that the same British unit had been also entering his brigade’s territory until a few months ago, unwisely adding: “They must be finding it less ungenial to raid Cork.”

Robinson was to insist that he had meant it as good-natured banter of the sort that he regularly exchanged with other IRA members. The attempt at humour, however, fell flat with Lynch. It was not an auspicious start to the relationship.

Eight months later, Robinson became frustrated at the occupation of the Four Courts, believing it foolhardy to keep the Anti-Treaty leadership cooped up like so many eggs in a basket. After a blazing row with Mellows and Rory O’Connor, Robinson left the Courts on the night of 27th June and departed from Dublin by train the next morning, just in time to escape the Free State attack that same day.

Bombarded_Four_Courts_Irish_Civil_War
The Free State attack on the Four Courts, June 1923

While sharing a train with Lynch and a number of other officers, Robinson argued intensely against the foolishness, as he saw it, of their policy for each IRA unit to fight on their own territory. As with the Four Courts occupation, this was far too passive for Robinson’s liking. Instead, he wanted the Anti-Treatyites to march in strength on Dublin and cut out the Free State cancer before it spread. The only man with the power to order this, however, was their cautious Chief of Staff, Lynch, who refused to hear of it.

The Strategist

Robinson continued to press his case. He told of how it had felt during the Easter Rising when Dublin stood alone and unaided. As if this was not plaintive enough, Robinson bore the responsibility of having promised the Dublin Brigade that he would return with his Tipperary men as soon he could. Lynch held firm, believing Dublin to be too dangerous.

As a compromise, Robinson suggested sending a hundred forerunners from his own brigade to the city to establish contact with the other IRA units there. If Lynch was shown how easy it could be done, then Robinson hoped the Chief of Staff would change his mind. Lynch agreed to the hundred-strong advance guard, and their success in reaching Dublin and the subsequent fighting there gave Robinson fresh hope. As late as December 1922, Robinson believed, the Anti-Treatyites had a chance at victory if they concentrated on Dublin.

free-state-troops-fire-on-the-four-courts3
Free State soldiers during the fighting in Dublin

But the lack of further aid from outside demoralised the Dublin IRA who refused to commit themselves to anything risky while they remained unsupported. Seeing the fight in the city become a dead-end, the Tipperary men withdrew. “For the second time in six years,” Robinson wrote mournfully, “Dublin was let down at a critical moment by the rest of the country.”[19]

The Ignored

Whether the Civil War would have been much different had Lynch followed Robinson’s proactive advice is debatable. It is unlikely, though, that it would have gone worse for the Anti-Treatyites. Not for the first time had Robinson failed to persuade when it would have been in the best interests of those involved to be persuaded.

Thomas Ryan, an officer in Robinson’s 3rd Tipperary Brigade, had noted how his O/C, despite his obvious intelligence, lacked the forceful character necessary to maintain authority over the Brigade’s flying columns formed during the War of Independence. Robinson was consequently regarded by the column-men as a purely nominal commander with no real input to offer.

Tipperary-flying-Column4
IRA Flying Column

This was to prove detrimental for all concerned. Perhaps, as Ryan was to wonder, if Robinson had been able to assert himself, “we might have had less to lament in the way of lost opportunities.”[20]

The same might have been said by the Anti-Treatyites in regards to the crucial opening months of the Civil War. It is perhaps darkly fitting that a man who had scorned the directives of his superiors for so long be repaid in kind.

The Man of Many Things

Passionately against the Treaty and his GHQ overseers in equal measure, Séumas Robinson gave one of the more forceful speeches in the Dáil debates. It called for the Volunteers to play a role in the unfolding politics to the extent that even a natural ally like Éamon de Valera distanced himself from it. Not content with that, Robinson went on to accuse two signatories of the Treaty, Arthur Griffith and Michael Collins, of nothing short of treason.

Robinson had already displayed an independent nature. An attempt to purchase weapons was made behind the backs of his commanding officers. In the 1921 elections he replaced one of candidates – whether on his own initiative or on the request of the local Volunteers – with the Sinn Féin central office receiving only a cursory notice. With such a rebellious streak, it is perhaps unsurprising that he bonded with a number of left-wing figures, although it is unclear as to what extent he shared their politics.

To the fore of the Anti-Treatyites in the build-up to the Civil War, Robinson was nonetheless marginalised when the conflict actually happened. His advice for a more aggressive policy was disregarded by Liam Lynch in what may have cost the Anti-Treatyites a chance at victory. Robinson was many things but he was not to be a winner.

 

See also:

Never Lukewarm: Séumas Robinson’s War of Independence

A Bitter Brotherhood: The War of Words of Séumas Robinson

 

References

[1] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: http://www.ucc.ie/celt/online/E900003-001.html

[2] Breen, Dan (BMH / WS 1763), p. 19

[3] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 119, 223

[4] Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

[5] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, 06/01/1921, pp. 288-92

[6] Hopkinson, Michael. Green against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988), p. 39

[7] Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), pp. 5-6

[8] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 77

[9] SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269 ; Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 337

[10] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Dublin: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-2

[11] O’Malley, Ernie. On Another Man’s Wound (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 183

[12] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958), p. 141

[13] Beaumont, Sean (BMH / WS 709), p. 6

[14] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919) p. 75 ; Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1722), p. 7

[15] Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation), p. 51

[16] Robbins, Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 203, 229

[17] Ibid, p. 232 ; a distinctly unsympathetic Dan Breen provided a brief first-hand account of the soviets in Tipperary in his BMH Statement (WS 1763), pp. 39-40

[18] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), pp. 7-17. Of limited use to an historian but it gives a good sense of the man’s style.

[19] Ibid, pp. 78-80, p. 102

[20] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 783), pp. 116-7

 

Bibliography

Books

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

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd, 1958)

Connolly, Roddy. The Republican Struggle in Ireland (London: The Irish Communist Organisation)

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

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

Laffan, Michael. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

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

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

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

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Beaumont, Sean, WS 709

Breen, Dan, WS 1763

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1722

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Ryan, Thomas, WS 783

Newspapers

Freeman’s Journal, 07/01/1922

Other Source

SCM, Sinn Féin standing committee minutes. Available from the National Library of Ireland, P3269