Rebel Herald: Liam Mellows and the Opposition to the Treaty, 1922 (Part VI)

A continuation of: Rebel Operative: Liam Mellows Against Britain, Against the Treaty, 1920-2 (Part V)

New Digs

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Ernie O’Malley

For Ernie O’Malley, life in Dublin was rapidly becoming an ordeal. For one, the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, that the anti-Treaty Irish Republican Army (IRA) had decided upon for its headquarters, was too small and limited in office amenities for such a purpose. It got to the point that he and some others resorted to supping in the homes of obliging friends elsewhere in the city, doing so in rotation so as to not wear out their welcome, while jumping at reports of Free Staters – as their pro-Treaty rivals were dubbed – coming to arrest them.

And then there was the issue of money, or rather the lack of. What aggravated O’Malley in particular was how the Provisional Government was refusing to pick up their tab for expenses with local traders. It was a strange complaint, considering how O’Malley openly regarded the new authority with hostility and yet expected it to support him and his colleagues, but the Pro-Treatyites had access to funds that the anti-Treaty IRA did not.

Besides, O’Malley was indignantly aware of how the money raised from bonds sold on behalf of the Irish Republic were now going – diverted, as far as he was concerned – into buying munitions for the Free State.

The anti-Treaty leadership decided to even out the financial inequality with a series of bank raids throughout the country – let the Free State foot the bill for that. Still, it did not change the fact that, with every passing day, their enemies were getting stronger while they themselves stagnated for want of direction.

On the 13th April 1922, O’Malley was in the Orange Hall in Parnell Square, one of several other buildings in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had taken as their own. While he was perusing through biscuit-tins for something to go with his tea, Liam Mellows came to inform him that he and the rest of the Army Council – formed out of the sixteen-strong IRA Executive – had decided to take over the Four Courts that night.

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Four Courts, Dublin

Entering the Four Courts

After expressing some mild concern as to whether they could hold the Four Courts, large as it was, O’Malley acquiesced and accompanied Mellows back to the Gaelic League Hall with his biscuits in hand. There they waited with the rest of the assembled party, simmering with barely contained excitement. At last, after weeks of tedium doing nothing, something was about to happen.

They set off after midnight, O’Malley and Mellows at the head of their group as they approached the imposing shape of the Four Courts in the dark. As if on cue, the heavy front-gates swung open from the inside upon their arrival. O’Malley and Mellows stepped through to see the night watchmen under guard by some other IRA men, who had climbed over the railings at the rear of the building.

The captives were ordered to go home. As they disappeared into the night, O’Malley tensed at the sound of marching boots coming their way. The Anti-Treatyites waited in the shadows by the front entrance, unsure as to which side these newcomers were on.

When they came into view through the open gates, O’Malley could tell by their casual dress, as opposed to the green uniforms of the Free Staters, that they were friends, some Tipperary men that Mellows had summoned for aid beforehand. The Four Courts had fallen without a shot needing to be fired, the only casualty being when one young man was wounded in the stomach by an accidentally discharged firearm and needed to be taken to hospital.

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IRA members on standby

Moving In

So quick had been the takeover that two policemen came by to relieve their co-workers on watch, unaware of the change in management, and were promptly detained. They were also released but not before breakfasting with their captors, the refreshments having been taken from the Four Courts Hotel by the quays. While Mellows and O’Malley were leading the capture of the courthouse, some others had forcibly entered the hotel by breaking through a window and ordering the guests to leave immediately.

In keeping with the maxim that an army marches on its stomach, large quantities of meat were taken from a bacon factory, along with bread out of a bakery in Parnell Square. Other nearby establishments were similarly plundered for food, indicating that the Four Courts occupation was not going to end anytime soon.

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IRA men walking down Grafton Street, Dublin

The citizens of Dublin had remained largely oblivious throughout the night. Some were woken shortly after midnight by the rumble of lorries passing through the streets. Gunshots were also heard, though not enough to cause a general alarm, such noises having become familiar enough by now in the city.

It was not until daybreak that the inhabitants realised that something was amiss, or at least more so than usual. Young men in civilian clothing could be seen blocking up the lower windows of the Four Courts with furniture, books and sacks filled with earth from the yard at the rear of the building. Other youths were stationed outside, some bearing arms, and maintained a stern front, revealing nothing by way of information to the curious crowds gathering nearby.

Inside, Mellows was entertaining the others while they worked by singing ballads such as The Croppy Boy and Come All Ye Brave United Men. A practised singer, he gave “the proper stress and intonation in his inimitable way,” to O’Malley’s appreciation. Mellows appeared more cheerful than he had been for a while, invigorated by finally having something to do.[1]

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Liam Mellows delivering a speech

A Challenge Laid

On the first day in the Four Courts, Mellows was confronted by Frank Robbins, a trade unionist and long-time friend since their days together in the United States. The two men had taken separate political paths, with Robbins deciding that the Treaty represented the best hope for Ireland.

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Frank Robbins

When Robbins told Mellows that by taking the Four Courts, he had in effect challenged the Provisional Government to do something – and if it failed to do so, then the British Government would. The latter did not confirm or deny this, merely smiling sadly before changing the topic.[2]

For all his evasions, Mellows showed that he had understood fully the truth of Robbins’ words when he submitted a public letter, dated to the 14th April and signed by himself as the Secretary of the Army Council. He announced that the Council was “prepared to discuss measures by which the unity of the Army is maintained”, but only on the following terms:

  • To maintain the existing Republic.
  • That Dáil Éireann, as the Government of the Republic, be the only Government of the country.
  • To maintain the Army as the Irish Republican Army, under the control of an elected independent Executive.
  • Disbanding the Civic Guard, with policing to be left to the IRA, as decided by its Executive.
  • All financial liabilities of the Army to be discharged, and future requirements met, by the Dáil.
  • No elections on the issue at present before the country to be held while the threat of war with Britain exists.[3]

All of which would amount to a total surrender on the part of the Pro-Treatyites. Before, there had been some doubts as to how far the anti-Treaty IRA would go. “One cannot believe that the new Army Council will take the tremendous responsibility of trying to kill the elections,” wrote the Irish Times as it struggled to come to terms with the enormity of the Four Courts occupation.  Mellows had answered that question in his letter’s sixth point.[4]

If it fell short as a declaration of war, it was nonetheless an audacious move. The question now was whether the country was ready for such a step…or, for that matter, if Mellows and the rest of the Executive were.

Robert Briscoe

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Robert Briscoe

Robert Briscoe was among the many agonising over what to do. He had played his part in the War of Independence as a gun-runner, helping to smuggle in weapons from Germany, where he had built up a healthy network of contacts and suppliers. At the IRA Convention of the 26th March 1922, he let his fellow attendees know that should push come to shove, and war resumed, he would be the man best placed to handle shipments.[5]

By April, however, Briscoe was having a crisis of faith. Despite his upbringing in Dublin, as a Jew he felt out of place in a question between Irishmen. Besides, while he believed wholly in the justice of the Republican cause, “it was one thing to take arms in defence of one’s country, it was quite another to fight over the form of its government,” as he put it.

Desperate for answers, Briscoe sent word to Mellows. It was an apt choice; hearing Mellows talk in New York five years before in 1917 had convinced him to join the fight for his country’s freedom in the first place. Mellows arrived at the house of Briscoe’s mother in Monkstown, Dublin, and did not disappoint. For five hours, Briscoe and his mother sat in the parlour, listening spellbound as Mellows delivered a powerful call for action:

Never was he so brilliant, so ardent and so emotional. I knew that this great effort he was making and the intensity of his feeling was not to save one poor soldier for Ireland. It was because of his love for me. He was wrestling for my soul with the devil of doubt.

Briscoe felt as if he was undergoing a religious revival as each of his doubts was meticulously demolished. He had already risked his life for Ireland, so who had more of a right to choose what to do? What’s more, Mellows expounded, this right was as much an obligation as anything, for, having performed his duty against tyranny before, could Briscoe, in good conscience, walk away now?

Furthermore, Mellows said, Briscoe:

…was bound by a still higher [obligation] to choose, because this was an ethical question and every human being by virtue of his divine humanity is obliged to make his choice between right and wrong.

To assuage Briscoe’s last mental hurdle – his reluctance to shed the blood of fellow countrymen – Mellows promised that the Anti-Treatyites would make no first moves in starting a civil war. That was enough for Briscoe. Mellows said he must choose, and choose he did when he went down to the Four Courts the next morning and enlisted in its garrison.[6]

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Anti-Treaty poster

Money and What to do With It

Serving directly under Mellows, Briscoe spent most of the following two months moving between Ireland and Germany. True to his word at the March convention, he got back to work doing what he did best.

That the Anti-Treatyites had the weapons they did was partly down to his earlier efforts, such as helping to organise the journey of the Frieda, the gun-running ship that had reached Waterford in the November of the previous year. As he surveyed the results of his labours in the form of ammunition stored in the cellar beneath the Four Courts, he felt an odd mix of pride and dismay.

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Liam Mellows

On the 2nd May, a fortnight after joining the Four Courts, Mellows called him to his office at the back of the building complex. To Briscoe’s amazement, Mellows sat surrounded by wastebaskets, all full to the brim with freshly printed bank notes. As if that was not enough, Mellows opened a wardrobe door to show that that too was packed with money.

It added up to £40,000 in new notes, with about £10,000 worth of older money, Mellows explained to his dumbfounded subordinate, who was starting to make the connection with the raids on several bank branches the day before. The money shortage O’Malley had fretted about was solved, at least for now.

But, first, there was the question of how to manage the ‘levy’, as Mellows called it. Being brand new, the notes could be easily identifiable and blocked by the Free State authorities. Mellows tasked Briscoe with laundering the money into used currency that could be spent with impunity.

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Dick Barrett

Briscoe was up for the challenge. He stuffed £10,000 worth of the new notes into a small bag and, accompanied by a veteran of the Cork IRA, Dick Barrett, took a cab to the bank where he already had an account of his own. He asked to see the manager, hoping that no one would notice the bulge in his suit where his automatic rested in a shoulder strap.

The manager was happy to see the two customers in his office. He was probably less so when Barrett took out his own pistol, placed it on the desk and told him to telephone the teller downstairs and have him change some banknotes into different denominations.

The manager took the matter in his stride. With an eyebrow slightly arched, he called the teller and repeated the instructions, almost word for word. Barrett then waited in the office with the manager while Briscoe went downstairs to be served accordingly.

Mellows was delighted when Briscoe returned with old notes, the money now usable. With £30,000 left to do, Briscoe contacted a number of friends, including the Woods family whose house in Donnybrook he and Mellows had often used as a hideout, and persuaded them to give a number of cheques in return for the money. It all worked like clockwork, and the Anti-Treatyites were finally able to pay their way.

Years later, when Briscoe, now a TD for Fianna Fáil, rose to give his first speech to the Dáil, he was met with jeers of ‘bank robber!’ from the opposing benches. “I have to admit they were not entirely unjustified,” he conceded in his memoirs.[7]

A Soldier’s Position

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Liam Lynch

The resort to criminality did not sit well with everyone. “There were many actions taken by our forces with which I did not hold, such as the bank raids,” wrote Joseph O’Connor (no relation to Rory), a Dublin IRA commander. As the IRA Executive struggled to maintain cohesion, O’Connor was not even clear if it had been Liam Lynch or Mellows who had ordered the bank robberies he found so distasteful.

“Still, I was a soldier and obeyed orders,” was how O’Connor put it, “and I presume a great many others found themselves in the same position.”

As a member of the Executive, O’Connor sat in on its sessions, which he considered “often far from satisfactory and we seemed to be unable to reach decisions.” Mellows would act as chairman but neither he nor Lynch, despite the latter’s rank as Chief of Staff, possessed the clout to impose any sort of direction.[8]

Having taken such a defiant stand, the IRA Executive proceeded to do…nothing. Besides meetings. There were a lot of meetings, much to O’Malley’s despair, since “there was no attempt to define a clear-cut policy. Words ran into phrases, sentences followed sentences.” There he would sit, holding in the urge to scream and dash out, the others stifling yawns as one speaker after another played at being Cicero, “picking up a sentence, inverting it, developing it as a theme, playing with it. Then silence, in which we all sat in a kind of vacuity.” It got to the point where O’Malley was suffering from headaches even before the assemblages began.[9]

A chance to break the deadlock came when President Arthur Griffith introduced a delegation of five men – Seán O’Hegarty, Tom Hales, Dan Breen, Humphrey Murphy and Florence O’Donoghue – to the Dáil on the 3rd May 1922.

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Tom Hales

“They were five widely different types,” wrote the Irish Times correspondent. “One of them, Mr Hales, from Bandon [Co. Cork], is a great, burly giant of a man, of the Viking type, with flaxen hair, clear blue eyes, and a complexion like that of a girl of sixteen.” Another Corkman in the group, O’Hegarty, was his physical contrast, being “slightly built, and has a long, rather ascetic type of face.”[10]

‘A Political Dodge’

But what bound them was more important than how they differed. Each of the five held prominent ranks in the anti-Treaty IRA, and all were prepared to put their names to a statement of intent: that the direction the Army and the country as a whole was moving in, that of conflict and fratricide, was an intolerable one.

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Seán O’Hegarty

Acting as the group’s spokesman, O’Hegarty told of how he had reached out to meet Collins and Mulcahy, with whom they agreed to gather half a dozen officers from each side. Together, they might just be able to find enough common ground to broker a solution.[11]

When it was proposed in the Dáil for a committee to be formed on these inclusive lines for such a purpose, Mellows, as the TD for Galway, was the first to speak – and to object. To him, this motion was “plainly another political dodge.” So long as the Treaty remained, unity was an impossibility. He repeated what he had said four months earlier at the Treaty debates:

You can have unity tomorrow on the question of the maintenance of the Republic but you will not have unity in this country either among the people or in the army upon any other basis.

What had happened to the country? Mellows wondered out loud, seemingly more in sorrow than in anger. What had happened to their movement?

This movement was a wonderful movement, because Ireland had been placed on a pedestal. An attempt is being made now to take Ireland down from that pedestal.

The hypocrisy of the Treaty was more than Mellows could stomach. Were those present going to pretend a loyalty to the British Government they did not feel, or mouth words of allegiance to a foreign king they had no intention of keeping? Only the straight road would lead to the Republic, and it was on those grounds that Mellows made his intentions to vote against the proposal known.[12]

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Arthur Griffith

Nonetheless, the motion was passed. An old hand at committee talks, Griffith suggested that each side contribute no more than five members, as anything extra would become unwieldy. After an interval of twenty-five minutes, the names were submitted. Michael Collins read out those of Seán Hales, Pádraic Ó Máille, Seamus O’Dwyer, Joseph McGuinness and Seán Mac Eoin for the Pro-Treatyites, after which Seán T. O’Kelly gave that of Kathleen Clarke, P.J. Ruttledge, Seán Moylan, Harry Boland and Mellows to represent the anti-Treaty party.

Considering his open disdain for compromise, Mellows was an unusual selection. But then, given his command in the Four Courts, he was a man of no small influence. Perhaps it was thought better to have him – to steal a phase of Lyndon B. Johnson’s – inside pissing out than outside pissing in.[13]

Good Omens?

Mellows was not alone in his concerns. That the five IRA officers had presumed to speak out was taken as a breach of discipline by O’Malley, who could be something of a martinet where his own viewpoint was concerned. To his further annoyance, Lynch did nothing to reprimand them.[14]

If anything, the Chief of Staff was supportive of their efforts, meeting a day later, on the 4th May, at the Mansion House, Dublin, with Eoin O’Duffy, his counterpart in the Free State forces. Also in attendance with Lynch were Seán Moylan and Mellows – whatever the latter’s stated doubts – as were Seán Mac Eoin and Gearóid O’Sullivan alongside O’Duffy. After a three hour talk behind closed doors, a ceasefire was signed between the two armies. It had come not a moment too soon, for there had been shootings and skirmishes throughout the country, in Donegal, AthloneMullingar and Kilkenny, resulting in a number of injuries and even deaths.

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Group photo of pro and anti-Treaty IRA officers together – (left to right) Seán Mac Eoin, Seán Moylan, Eoin O’Duffy, Liam Lynch, Gearóid O’Sullivan and Liam Mellows (video on YouTube)

Sitting together in the Mansion House was the ten-strong committee the Dáil had appointed, with Mellows and Mac Eoin also present. The latter in particular was seen hurrying between the two groups, dressed in his green uniform with a revolver in his belt. Although held separately, the two sets of talks were by no means apart, as the other military officers in the building would drop by to converse with the Dáil Committee attendees.

Encouragingly, “the general feeling was of friendliness and good-will,” reported the Irish Times. In a tone of cautious optimism, the newspaper pointed out how:

The fact that even a temporary truce could be arranged in a highly charged atmosphere is taken as a good omen that a lasting peace may be reached after a cool review of the entire situation.

There was even talk of the two halves of the fractured IRA being healed. If such a reunification came about, the Irish Times predicted that “the political path should be appreciably smoothed.”[15]

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Mansion House, Dublin

The Dáil that assembled on the 10th May had to endure a tedious preamble, sitting through a stupefying discourse on local government affairs before the findings of the Dáil Committee could be announced. The latest speaker was just in the middle of his point, amidst an atmosphere of languor, when the news came that the Committee members were finally in the building.

The effect, as described by the Irish Times, was electrifying:

The whole atmosphere of the place changed in a twinkling. The drowsy apathy of the members gave way to a buzz of excitement, which was followed by a tense silence as Mr MacNeill read out the laconic report which had been handed to him.

The report was that of failure. The Committee had met no less than eleven times, seeking a basis of agreement which, by the end, remained as elusive as ever. Both wings of the Committee promised to deliver their separate reports by the following day, neither of which seemed terribly important at that moment.

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Seán Milroy

“Is it understood that the truce continues in the meantime?” Seán Milroy, the TD for Fermanagh and Tyrone, asked plaintively.

It was a question to which no one present had a ready answer. Mellows had departed by then, as had the rest of the failed Committee. Despite knowing what the verdict would be, he had seemed as shocked as anyone, staring vacantly ahead with a grim expression.[16]

Tammany Hall Methods

When Mellows next spoke to the Dáil, a week later on the 17th May 1922, he was in a defensive mood. “I listened to this tirade that went on here in the last few speeches trying to put the blame for failure to reach an agreement upon the Republicans,” he said. “I am not going to say anything to them.”

He and the four other anti-Treaty delegates had entered the talks, Mellows said, with every intent of reaching an understanding with the opposite side. But when the talks came to the subject of a possible coalition government, consisting of members of both parties:

It is quite plain now, as it became quite plain to me towards the end of the Conference that our ideas of a coalition were not the same, and that there is, perhaps, a fundamental difference.

Our idea of a coalition was a coalition formed to save the national honour, a coalition formed to preserve the position of Ireland…we did not go there to make any bargains over seats in this Dáil, which we have no rights to bargain about.

For Mellows, such horse-trading was too much: “We have not yet descended, thanks be to God, in this country, I hope, to the position of what was aptly described once here as Tammany Hall methods.”

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Tammany Hall cartoon

The contemptuous allusion to the notoriously corrupt politics of New York touched a nerve in another deputy in the chamber. Like Mellows, he had been part of the Committee talks, albeit on the other side of the table as a Pro-Treatyite:

I stand before the Dáil and before Ireland as the culprit who has sunk so low as to make a suggestion that I thought was uttered in good faith and uttered for the safe-guarding of this nation and not to degrade it to Tammany Hall methods.

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Seán Mac Eoin

So spoke Seán Mac Eoin, the renowned ‘Blacksmith of Ballinalee’. As Mellows had already said, the assumptions behind a possible coalition government had differed considerably between the two Committee halves.

“To have a coalition government, you could get nowhere without some definite basis,” Mac Eoin lectured.

That basis, he said as he recounted his version of evente, had been the Treaty. The opposition must either reverse course and work with the Treaty or stand aside and let the rest take on the responsibility. If said conditions were unacceptable, then Mac Eoin wished they had saved everyone time and made that clear “less than five minutes after we started.”

“It was made,” Mellows interrupted.

But Mac Eoin was having none of it: “Now, Liam, I know whether it was or not.”[17]

Who Dares to Speak of Easter Week?

Regardless of culpability, such pettifogging only highlighted the gulf between the two sides. Still, his exchange with Mac Eoin must have made an impression on Mellows for, on the following day, he sought to correct an impression he may have given.

“Would I be in order in referring to something I said yesterday relative to one of the reports?” he asked in the Dáil. “It is in the form of an explanation.”

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Eoin MacNeill

“It is not likely to lead to any controversial discussions?” asked Eoin MacNeill warily, in his role as Ceann Comhairle.

“No,” Mellows assured him. When he had used the expression ‘Tammany Hall methods’, Mellows explained, he had not meant to single out the other side. “I referred to all of us.”

“I hope none of us will say anything more serious than that,” said MacNeill, before the reports on the Departments of Labour, Education and Publicity were read out in turn, making for a considerably calmer session than the previous ones.[18]

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Kevin O’Higgins

But it was not long before the wounds of the Treaty split gaped open again, with deputies on either end picking at the ragged edges. The next day, on the 19th May 1922, Kevin O’Higgins approvingly quoted a bishop who decreed anyone who killed without a democratic mandate a murderer. Mellows interrupted with just two words: “Easter Week.”

O’Higgins ignored him, but the point had been made: if the Irish Revolution, which included many in the Dáil chamber, had not had to obey orderly procedures before, why start now?[19]

To be continued in: Rebel Schismatic: Liam Mellows on the Brink of Conflict, 1922 (Part VII)

References

[1] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 88-91 ; Irish Times, 15/04/1922

[2] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 231-2

[3] Irish Times, 22/04/1922

[4] Ibid, 15/04/1922

[5] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 148

[6] Ibid, pp. 150-2

[7] Ibid, p. 154-8

[8] O’Connor, Joseph (BMH / WS 544), pp. 9-10

[9] O’Malley, p. 100

[10] Irish Times, 04/05/1922

[11] Ibid

[12] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), pp. 360-1

[13] Ibid, p. 366-7

[14] O’Malley, p. 100

[15] Irish Times, 05/05/1922 ; McDonnell, Vera (BMH / WS 1050), p. 10

[16] Irish Times, 11/05/1922

[17] Dáil Éireann, pp. 418-9

[18] Ibid, p. 441

[19] Ibid, p. 464

Bibliography

Books

Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959)

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

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

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

McDonnell, Vera, WS 1050

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Newspaper

Irish Times