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 its 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

 

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