Cast Adrift: Joseph Sweeney, Charlie Daly and the Start of the Civil War in Donegal, 1922

Pull your knife out of my back, your blood runs black,

I was just surprised at how you turned on me so fast,

I let you in, I held you close,

My blood flows like a river ‘cause I trusted you the most.

(Alec Benjamin, The Knife in My Back)

Taken Aback

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Joe Sweeney

It says much about the speed and suddenness in which the Civil War broke out that two of the leading figures on one side, Joseph Sweeney and Seán Mac Eoin – both Major-Generals for the Irish Free State – did not know about it until the fighting was already underway. Mac Eoin, for one, was so unsuspecting that he had seen fit to leave his command post in Co. Sligo, having recently been married.

While honeymooning in Donegal, Mac Eoin was careless enough to drive his car off the road and into a ravine, forcing him to send a telegram for help to his colleague, Sweeney, the officer in charge of the Free State forces in the county. After the errant vehicle was pulled out and repaired, the two generals decided mark the occasion of Mac Eoin’s visit with a military parade in nearby Letterkenny on the 28th June 1922.

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Seán Mac Eoin

A dispatch rider arrived, while the soldiers were marching down the main street, to bring word that an attack by their Free State comrades in distant Dublin was underway against the anti-Treaty base of the Four Courts. However shocking the news, there was no time for delay. Mac Eoin was hurriedly escorted back to take charge in Sligo, while Sweeney busied himself with seizing the enemy outposts in Donegal.

After all the months of waiting, all the months of tension, all the months of broken pacts and false hope, the long-dreaded disaster was unfolding with an almost dizzying swiftness, as Sweeney described:

That evening we took Finner Camp, and after that we took Ballyshannon Barracks to leave the way clear to the south. We attacked a barracks in Buncrana and another place down near the border, Bridgend, and we proceeded to dislodge them wherever they went until they retreated to the very heart of the country, where they set up their headquarters.

An opportunity for a peaceful, or at least non-violent, resolution presented itself when Sweeney’s men cornered two of their foes. After expressing regret that things had become as bad as they had, the pair asked Sweeney for a safe passage so they could perhaps arrange a parley with their leader, Charlie Daly.

Sweeney agreed to this and went the next day with an aide, Colonel Tom Glennon, to the meeting site. He expected to see Daly, as one senior officer to another – not to mention a friend – and perhaps a few others. Instead, he found himself facing about thirty men, the entirety of Daly’s column. Sweeney and Glennon were unarmed, not to mention vastly outnumbered, but the truce held and the two sides talked for what Sweeney estimated was three and a half hours.

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IRA men from Cashel, Co. Tipperary

But nothing came of it and Sweeney eventually drew the discussion to an end. “It looks as though we’re going to have to regard one another as enemies from now on,” he told the others.[1]

As he made to depart from the building they were in, he heard a voice upstairs say: “Are you going to let him go?” It was a hint at how close he was to mortal danger.[2]

Sweeney’s Journey

The irony was that Sweeney was upholding a political decision he initially dismissed. He had been involved in the revolutionary movement since his days as a schoolboy in St Enda’s, under Patrick Pearse’s tutelage, where he helped grind chemicals with a pestle and mortar to create explosives for landmines and canister bombs. Pearse was his teacher in more ways than one, first swearing him into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) in 1915 and then, in the early spring of 1916, informing him and a group of other students about the uprising planned for Easter Sunday.

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Students of St Enda’s performing on school grounds

“It was felt that it had to come in our generation or never, that we would never get an organization like it again,” as Sweeney described it. “Of course none of them had any idea that it would succeed.”[3]

From his vantage point in the General Post Office (GPO), Sweeney had an overview of the Rising as British troops slowly tightened their encirclement of the Irish positions while artillery guns bombarded away with incendiary shells, forcing Sweeney and others into fire-fighting duties with a hose. When a chemist on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street was hit, the resulting flames reared up in the air and soon the whole end of the street was ablaze.[4]

wm_dsc_0417bUpon their surrender on Easter Saturday, Sweeney marched out of Moore Street with the others, towards captivity. Seán Mac Diarmada gave a final speech, telling them that this was but the beginning. He, Pearse and the other leaders could expect only execution and so, he said, “it is up to you men to carry it on.”[5]

These were words Sweeney took to heart and he plunged right back into the fray after his release. In charge of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in his native county of Donegal, he set to work making his corner of Ireland ungovernable for the British authorities. Roads were trenched to stymie military patrols, while police barracks were attacked and razed. “By the end of 1920 we had cleared them out of the whole area of the Rosses and Gweedore,” Sweeney boasted.[6]

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IRA Flying Column

An arrest soon followed. Sweeney was once again imprisoned, first in Belfast and then shipped to England for a sentence in Wormwoods Scrubs, where the Irish inmates continued the hunger strike they had started in Belfast. The British state crumbled even quicker than it had in Donegal, swiftly freeing the prisoners, who were welcomed back home by enthusiastic crowds and lit bonfires.[7]

The Treaty

Given the hard fight already made, and the string of successes enjoyed, Sweeney could perhaps be forgiven for his incredulity when reading the terms of the Treaty in the morning papers on the 7th December 1921. To hell with this, this is not what we were fighting for, was his first thought.

treatyToo cautious to make a hasty decision, however, Sweeney went to Dublin to consult his superiors in the IRB. He hoped to talk to Michael Collins but, after seeing him, depressed and weary, in the Wicklow Hotel, Sweeney could not bring himself to bother him.

Instead, he took aside Eoin O’Duffy, who was present in the hotel. O’Duffy stood high in the secret fraternity, but even he was no help. Official policy, he explained, was for each initiate to decide for himself on whether to support the Treaty.

Which was no answer at all. The Brotherhood had helped spearhead the revolution since its inception but now, at this most critical of junctions, it was dithering as badly as anyone.

Returning to Donegal, Sweeney next sought out the local Sinn Féin circles, who had put him up for successful election as TD to the embryonic Dáil Éireann back in 1918. After a lengthy discussion, it was agreed that Sweeny, in his capacity as a public servant, would vote for the Treaty in the forthcoming Dáil debates later that month.[8]

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The National Concert Hall, Dublin, originally the National University, where the Treaty debates were held

If Sweeney had been indecisive before, now he threw himself into defending the Treaty with the same determination he had shown against the British. When he received word in Dublin that Éamon de Valera wished to speak with him, Sweeney declined, and did so again when asked a second time.

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Margaret Pearse

The two men chanced on each other in the corridor of the National University, where the debates were being held. Adopting a schoolmasterly manner, de Valera tried changing his mind, but an irritated Sweeney turned on his heel and strode away. Others, such as Margaret Pearse, mother of his late teacher, and Seán MacBride, were to criticise Sweeney for his choice, but the Donegal TD held fast, convinced that the Treaty was the only sensible option to take.[9]

De Valera’s persistence at conversion was a compliment to the power Sweeney possessed, for he was not merely an elected representative but also the Commandant-General of the First Northern Division, consisting of the four Donegal IRA brigades. The political and the military were walking side by side, if uneasily at times, and Sweeney’s rank was as important to the pro-Treaty cause as his vote in the Dáil.

Not that he was one to let his importance go to his head. “His manner was pleasant, displaying a diffidence which was unexpected in so senior an officer,” remembered one acquaintance at the time.[10]

But, diffident or otherwise, he made sure his subordinates went the same way he did, as another witness would attest: “I may say that only for his influence…the whole Division would undoubtedly have gone irregular [anti-Treaty] in March 1922.”[11]

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Pro-Treaty propaganda poster

Divided Divisions

But the Pro-Treatyites – or the Free Staters as they were dubbed – did not have Donegal to themselves. Nor were they the only ones using the name of the First Northern Division.

Sometime in late March or early April 1922, a number of IRA officers drove up from Dublin to McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal. There, the senior staff members of the First Northern Division were inaugurated: Seán Lehane (O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Divisional Adjutant), Joe McQuirk (Divisional Quartermaster) and Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), along with a number of others.[12]

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Seán Lehane and Charlie Daly (standing, left to right), with three other IRA men

Except this was a very different Division to the one that had remained under Sweeney’s leadership and thus loyal to the new Free State government. In a reflection of what was occurring throughout the country, the Donegal IRA had split into two factions, each claiming the mantle of the other.

An onlooker in McGarry’s Hotel might have noted how many of the officers present were not from the county in which they were to be headquartered. Though O’Donnell was a Donegal native, and McQuirk’s Tyrone origins at least made him an Ulsterman, Lehane and O’Donoghue were West Cork born-and-bred, while Daly hailed from faraway Kerry.

Curiously, an outsider status appeared to be a boon to anyone serving in Ulster, at least in O’Donoghue’s opinion:

In general, as I saw it in the North, the Republican rank-and-file and the ordinary Volunteers in Ulster showed little respect or obedience to their own northern officers.

On the other hand, they seemed to be in awe of us southern IRA officers, and our merest word was law. Whether it was our reputation or our experience as hardened campaigners I know not.[13]

Regardless of the truth of such assertions – and it is doubtful that O’Donoghue voiced them within earshot of his Ulster colleagues – the anti-Treaty version of the First Northern Division was in a tenuous position. Most of the military and police barracks in Donegal, vacated by the British forces, were in the hands of their Free State rivals, who also had the advantage of numbers.[14]

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Free State soldiers on parade

Stranger in a Strange Land

So that there would be no misunderstandings between their armies, Lehane undertook to contact Sweeney, as one O/C to another. Sweeney, however, did not deign to treat the other man as his equal. Lehane found his overtures rebuffed until, after persevering for a fortnight, he was able to arrange the face-to-face he wanted with Sweeney on the 1st May 1922. Lehane brought Daly with him as his Deputy, while Sweeney was seconded by his adjutant, Tom Glennon, when they met at Drumboe Castle, the pro-Treaty IRA headquarters in Donegal.

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Drumboe Castle

The talk, to Lehane’s dismay, did not go as well as he had hoped:

Sweeney told me he did not recognise me; that my army was an unofficial army, and that anyhow, I did not belong to the county. I replied that an Irishman was not a stranger in any part of his native land. At this stage his adjutant interjected, ‘You are our enemies.’

In response, Lehane warned that, in the absence of some sort of cooperation between their forces, he could not be held responsible for any bloodshed to come. “Do you want to see civil war in Donegal?” he asked.

“I will carry out my orders,” Sweeney replied, according to Lehane, “no matter what happens.”[15]

Sweeney’s description of that same encounter was broadly in line with Lehane’s, albeit with a different emphasis. While Lehane presented himself as open-minded and accommodating, as opposed to an aloof and rigid Sweeney, the other man’s version had him stress the importance of his duties in Donegal:

I told Comdt. Lehane that I accepted full responsibility for the maintenance of peace and order in my command in the same way I accepted responsibility for the conduct of hostilities against the British in this country during the period previous to the truce.

Sweeney was also willing to play the local card, arguing that, in a letter to the press, “with the exception of the non-natives of the county, practically every man who fired a shot during hostilities [the War of Independence] stands by the GHQ,” and, by extension, the Free State. In contrast to this was “the importation by [anti-Treaty] Executive supporters of strangers to this county,” in a pointed reference to Lehane’s Southern origins and those of many under his command.[16]

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IRA men

Lehane had accused the Free Staters of harassing his men with hold-ups, searches and even imprisonment. Sweeney denied the extent of this mistreatment and, in turn, alleged the wholesale theft of cars and provisions, including cattle seized for meat, and the looting from shops, private residences and trains by Anti-Treatyites.[17]

These simmering tensions came to a boil in a shocking way on the 4th May, when shoot-outs between the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, on two separate occasions in the villages of Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, left multiple causalities, including deaths, of both combatants and civilians. The exact circumstances on that woeful day would be a source of controversy, with both Sweeney and Lehane offering conflicting claims. One of those present, however, was in no doubt as to where to point the finger.[18]

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Free State soldiers with a wounded man

“’Twas a very tragic affair but the blames lies wholly with Joe Sweeney,” wrote Charlie Daly in a letter on the 8th May, four days later. “Since this affair I understand Sweeney is very anxious for peace, but had he been half as anxious a few days earlier no lives would have been lost.”[19]

Not an Easy Job

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Charlie Daly

When present with Lehane at the fruitless talks at Drumboe Castle, Daly had tried to appeal to Sweeney on the basis of their past friendship. “I knew Joe well so I did my very best to try and make some arrangement,” he wrote. “We wanted him to face facts or there would be trouble, but he said he did not care and would carry out orders no matter what happened.”[20]

In that, Sweeney and Daly were more alike than they cared to admit – both determined to fulfil their duty, no matter how high the risk or painful the cost. If, for Sweeney, that meant the preservation of Donegal, then Daly was looking over the border, towards the Six Counties.

The failing of the Pro-Treatyites, in Daly’s view, was that they did not grasp the opportunity for peace that a common enemy provided. “If both Free State and Republicans might concentrate on Ulster there would be no fighting among themselves in the South,” he wrote wistfully.[21]

It was not the first time Daly was on campaign in the North. Born of a staunchly Republican family in Kerry, he had been arrested twice between 1918 and 1919, being released after the second time on account of his poor eyesight which lulled the British authorities into dismissing him as a threat. He quickly proved them wrong, first by joining the Kerry IRA Flying Column and then the GHQ Staff in early 1920.[22]

It was on behalf of the latter that Daly was dispatched to Tyrone as an IRA organiser. Unlike O’Donoghue, he did not find that his Southern background awarded him any special status among the locals, describing how “the principal characteristic of most northerners is their suspicious attitude towards all strangers.”[23]

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IRA men

Such insularities aside, the newcomer soon, in the words of Nicholas Smyth, a Tyrone IRA man, “impressed us very much by his example and bearing.” Determined not to sugar-coat anything, Daly:

…left us under no illusion about what our activities as Volunteers would entail during the future months. He said that a number of people would have to be prepared to make the supreme sacrifice because we were not going to have it all our own way with the British. Shootings would take place and it would be up to every man to do his bit. He assured us that volunteering was not going to be an easy job.

Before, the Tyrone IRA had been largely unsupervised, with individual companies acting as they saw fit, without regard for any wider strategy and thus achieving little of note. Daly instantly sought to improve on that and so, in his first month in the county, he organised an attack on a police patrol at Ballygawley, wounding five.[24]

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Royal Irish Constabulary patrol

Daly kept the big picture in mind after three IRA men were slain in April 1921, in retaliation for another ambush. When their enraged comrades planned to exact revenge with a killing spree on any foe in sight:

Charlie Daly rushed into our area next day to remind us that we were soldiers and must obey orders and that we could not carry out any indiscriminate shootings.

Instead, Daly plotted a more calculated, and grander, form of vengeance that would involve the abduction of a number of enemy personnel before killing them en masse. “This thing was discussed and planned and, as far as I know,” recalled Smyth, “the non-execution of it must have been due to GHQ refusing its sanction to the operation.”[25]

Truce and Tension

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Cathal Brugha

Daly’s work earned him a promotion during the pause in the war afforded by the Truce of July 1921. “In view of the possibilities of further fighting and in order to put the army in an unequivocal position as the legal defence force of the  nation,” wrote Cathal Brugha, as Minister of Defence, to Daly on the 17th November 1921, “I hereby offer you a commission as O/C 2nd ND [Northern Division] with the rank of commandant general.”[26]

Command over the Second Northern Division would give Daly authority over the four brigades in Co. Tyrone, a sign that his achievements had been recognised. But all certainties came to an abrupt halt with the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921. At the news, Daly “was overcome with despair,” according to his sister. Although he could not contribute to the Treaty debates in Dublin, not being a TD, “he spent nearly every day at the debates…He was terribly anxious about the outcome.”[27]

As well he might be. When the Dáil voted to ratify the Treaty, Daly, along with Liam Lynch and a couple of others, walked out into the rain and the screeching ‘music’ of a lone kilted piper, incongruously pacing the street. The four men stopped inside Vaughan’s Hotel, moving past some celebrating Pro-Treatyites to head upstairs, where they sat in silent torpor.[28]

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Parnell Square, Dublin, site of the fomer Vaughan Hotel

Aware of the potential for calamity, efforts were made almost at once to ensure everyone remained on the same page. On the 10th January 1922, three days after the Dáil voted, a smaller gathering was held at the Mansion House of all the divisional commandants, along with a few brigade O/Cs. That both Éamon de Valera and Richard Mulcahy presided over the event, despite their opposing stances on the Treaty, was a gesture of unity in itself.

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Éamon de Valera

The Republic and the Dáil still existed, de Valera told them soothingly, and, as such, they were to continue on as the Irish Republican Army. Not all were convinced. Lynch was in tears as he told de Valera how he could no longer follow orders he did not believe in. Daly was sympathetic to Lynch but his thoughts remained on Ulster. After all, “my area is in a state of war,” he explained to his brother, Tom, a Kerry IRA man. “The northerners must fight for their existence under whatever government is in power.”

Still, Daly mused, “it seems curious that we must risk our lives for the sake of a cause that had been handed over to the enemy.”[29]

He made no secret of his aversion to the Treaty and, not coincidentally, relations with GHQ began to deteriorate. A letter from Eoin O’Duffy, the Deputy Chief of Staff, on the 4th March, caught him off guard: Daly was to be removed from his post as Division Commandant and brought back down to his old role as GHQ organiser. The rank had always been intended as a temporary one, O’Duffy said by way of explanation, and besides, “I always considered that local men were better suited for such positions in every part of Ireland when proper men could be secured.”

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Eoin O’Duffy

With such a local man now at hand, in the form of Tom Morris, recently freed from Dartmoor Prison, there was no longer a need for a Southerner like Daly in the role. But that was not the end of the message. There were other causes for concern, ones which O’Duffy did not hesitate to relay: “I regret that two out of the three brigade commandants…have stated that they had not confidence in you.”

As if that was not enough, O’Duffy made clear his own opinion on Daly’s past conduct, the letter getting progressively more cutting: “I am not satisfied that you exercised sufficient control.”[30]

A Crooked Correspondence

It was a deeply humiliating demotion, the alleged cause of which Daly did his best to challenge. “This communication has given me no small amount of surprise,” he wrote back to O’Duffy, now the Chief of Staff, four days later, on the 8th March. “If the statements made by you there were accurate, I should not be fit to be offered any position of responsibility in the Army.”[31]

mulcahy046Daly took the time to write out a lengthy rebuttal of the reasons O’Duffy provided, though feelings between the two men had been acrimonious for quite some time already. “At Beggars Bush you practically kicked me out of the command and twice threatened me with the guard room in the presence of my junior officers,” he complained. “I am certain that the late Chief of Staff [Richard Mulcahy] would have acted in a different manner.”[32]

It was to that same man that Daly wrote later in the month when he received no answer from O’Duffy. “Unless the manner of my removal from command of the 2nd ND is dealt with in the way I have asked,” Daly warned Mulcahy, now the Minster of Defence, “I may be reluctantly obliged to put the whole matter into the hands of the press.”[33]

Writing at the same time to O’Duffy again, Daly repeated his threat to go public. For he was left in no doubt now that his demotion had been purely a political move, having talked to the two Northern IRA officers who O’Duffy claimed had expressed no confidence in him. One, a Seán Haughey from Armagh, had expressed regret to Daly:

…for his part in the affair, and said he has now realise that he had been fooled. He told me that at an interview that he had with you that morning you informed him that you were not responsible for my removal but had to do it on instructions from the Minister of Defence [Mulcahy].

As for the other accuser, a Derry man named Seán Larkin, he:

…informed me that you told the new Divisional O/C [Tom Morris] that you had only been waiting for an opportunity to remove me. This officer…said he ‘was disgusted with the whole business and that if he saw anymore of this crookedness he would make a clear breast of what he knew.’[34]

O’Duffy’s letter of reply two days later, on the 24th March, was a brief one. He took the accusations of conspiracy in his stride, affecting a world-weary shrug as he told Daly:

As regards you publicising the correspondence in the press, I would not be surprised at anything I might see there nowadays and neither will it annoy me.[35]

Mulcahy was even more laconic – and just as dismissive. “The Minister of Defence desires me to say that your letter has been duly received,” informed his secretary. Daly had held his ground and fought his hardest, but there was clearly no future for him in GHQ anymore.[36]

‘Sensationalism of a Very Peculiar Order’

Even with the worsening crisis in Ireland, and the widening chasm between former comrades, hope remained for some sort of solution. That the military heads of the two factions were able to meet at the beginning of May 1922 was not in itself a breakthrough, but the talks at least provided a venue to find common ground, one of which, as it turned out, was the North and the ongoing violence there:

Even after everybody had taken sides on the main question of the Treaty in the early spring of 1922, further conferences were held at which General Liam Lynch RIP and his staff, General Michael Collins RIP and his chief advisors were present, and at one of these meetings the same general attitude was upheld, and in order to remedy things both sides agreed to select officers for Ulster.[37]

So explained Seán Lehane in 1935, as part of his application letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane was to be part of the said remedy, along with the other men assigned to head Northwards and set up bases in Donegal, Tyrone and parts of Fermanagh and Cavan, from where to launch attacks on the British military and Unionist police elsewhere in Ulster.

Lehane’s instructions, as given to him by Lynch, were simple, in theory at least: “The Truce was not to be recognised up there; to get inside the border wherever, whenever.”[38]

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Michael Collins

Although only Anti-Treatyites were sent in the end, Collins assisted in supplying equipment for the venture. The Cork IRA, under Lynch’s direct command, would be providing the guns as well as the personnel, and they would be reimbursed with rifles from the Pro-Treatyites, on Collins’ authority, which had been previously provided by Britain, as per its new partnership with the Free State.

“The reason for these stipulations was to avoid embarrassment for General Collins in dealing with the British Government in case a rifles fell into the hands of the British,” Lehane explained.[39]

It was a complicated undertaking on Collins’ part, which relied on keeping one hand in the dark about what the other was doing. Lorries were seen moving between Beggars Bush and the Four Courts – the headquarters of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs respectively – to exchange weapons but, for what purpose, no one knew.[40]

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The Four Courts, Dublin

But some could guess. “One other possible encouragement to our hopes for unity lay in the project (whispered about during the time) for an armed move across the border. Here was sensationalism of a very peculiar order,” remembered a Dublin IRA man. “It was even whispered that Mick Collins approved it and collaborated with the Four Courts Executive in its favour.”[41]

Via Media

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Liam Lynch

A new spirit of optimism was abound, at least among the Anti-Treatyites. Those of them bound for Ulster would first stop at the Four Courts to meet with Lynch and other members of the IRA Executive, such as Liam Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey. It was an assurance that their mission had the blessing from the very top.

“Our people were very genuine here, for they accepted this attack on the North as a via media [middle way] and one which would solve our problems,” as one such operative from Cork, Maurice Donegan, put it.[42]

Whether the Pro-Treatyites were quite as committed, or starry-eyed, is another question. When Sweeney received a consignment of rifles in Donegal, as per Collins’ instructions, he dutifully assigned men to chisel off the incriminating serial numbers. No names had been included as to who he was to forward them to, so Sweeney waited until two Derry men arrived with the necessary credentials. Sweeney estimated that he had sent over four hundred rifles.[43]

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Ernie O’Malley

But, otherwise, he did nothing to assist either the Anti-Treatyites in Donegal or the IRA over the border. “I had no use for the North for I thought they were no good,” he bluntly told Ernie O’Malley in a later interview. “I got no encouragement from Collins, or from GHQ about helping the North, not had I any instructions to back them up.”[44]

This was despite Collins and him keeping in regular contact. After the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson, the British general and Unionist MP, at his London home on the 22nd June 1922, Sweeney met with Collins, who had some tantalising news to share. “It was two men of ours did it,” Collins said, looking pleased.[45]

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Illustration of Sir Henry Wilson’s assassination in June 1922

Sweeney did not press any further. Neither man seemed to think anything would come of it. Five days after Wilson’s death, Ireland was at war with itself.

‘Confusion and Alarm’

If the start of the conflict had caught Pro-Treatyites like Sweeney by surprise, then the other side in Donegal were equally dumbfounded. “We never dreamt of civil war or anticipated for a single moment any attack by Free State forces,” remembered Michael O’Donoghue, the Divisional Engineer. The O/C, Lehane, was away in Dublin, and Daly, as Deputy, assumed control in his place, while appointing O’Donoghue as his own second-in-command.

Daly had recently returned from the capital after witnessing the sorry spectacle of the IRA Convention on the 20th June. An event that was supposed to heal the breach between the pro and anti-Treaty armies had instead deteriorated into a split within a split, as hardliners among the Anti-Treatyites walked out in protest at efforts by their more moderate fellows to find common ground with the Free Staters.[46]

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IRA members, including Liam Lynch (front row, fourth from left), at one of the IRA conventions in Dublin, 1922

“The Army question is in a worse mess than ever, and everybody is sick and disgusted,” Daly wrote in a letter, immediately after the ill-fated gathering. “We don’t know where we stand at present.” Donegal, he assumed, had no further need of his services. “We will probably go back there for a few days to wind up things and then go home for some time.”[47]

Upon returning to Donegal, however, Daly concluded that Kerry would have to wait. War with the British forces stationed mere miles away seemed a distinct possibility, and Donegal was in no fit state to respond. “I found things completely disorganised when I got back,” he complained in another letter.[48]

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IRA men

With Daly putting himself temporarily in charge, he and O’Donoghue did a quick tour of the units under their command to put them on a war footing. It was task which both men excelled, even revelled in.

“Daly and myself were regarded as severe disciplinarians,” recorded O’Donoghue, with just a hint of pride, “who would tolerate no nonsense or disorderliness or dereliction of duty.”

Then they waited to see what the British would do next. News reached them of the Wilson shooting, followed by an angry ultimatum from the British Government to Collins for something to be done. “Events moved quickly,” continued O’Donoghue. “Confusion and alarm in Dublin. Confusion and alarm throughout Ireland.”

The two countries looked set to resume their war. As it turned out, however, the Saxon foe was not who the anti-Treaty IRA had to worry about.

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The explosion of the Four Courts, Dublin, July 1922

An Existing Peace

Even when word filtered up to them, on the 28th July, about the fighting in distant Dublin, the anti-treaty leaders responded slowly, even sluggishly, hamstrung by their doubts. Driving the next day from their base in Glenveigh Castle, Daly and O’Donoghue, along with three other officers, stopped by the town of Letterkenny to hear Mass. While inside the Cathedral, drawing curious looks from the rest of the congregation:

We remained close to the door together as we were uncertain of the attitude of the Free State Army who held Letterkenny in strength and we were half afraid of being intercepted on emerging from Mass.

Their devotions completed, the group were able to leave Letterkenny without interference and headed to their headquarters in Raphoe. Pro and anti-Treaty soldiers had divided up the village, with the former inside the police barracks and the latter occupying the Freemasons’ Hall and an adjacent house. It was a reflection of the country as a whole, but things had remained quiet between the two factions.

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The Freemasons’ Hall in Raphoe, Co. Donegal, and the base of the anti-Treaty IRA

Daly and O’Donoghue were confident enough to go to the barracks, where they had a civilised talk with the garrison commander, Willie Holmes. He and Daly were old friends and they appeared set to remain so, as:

Holmes admitted he had got no instructions to open hostilities against us Republicans and declared that, whether he got them or not, he would not do anything anyway. We, for our part, assured him that we would not break the peace that existed between us.

So far, it seemed that what conflict there was had been confined to Dublin. With luck, and the spirit of brotherhood that existed between men like Holmes and Daly, it might just remain that way.[49]

Daly would soon curse his own reticence. “I had no intention of attacking the Staters and they knew it,” he wrote on the 13th July, “but still they attacked us treacherously when they thought that they had the advantage of us.”[50]

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Free State soldiers with armoured vehicle

‘Seizing Every Advantage’

The next morning, Daly, O’Donoghue and the others were startled into action by reports that the opposition had moved to take Raphoe in its entirety. Throwing on their clothes, the Anti-Treatyites rushed out to see two Free State sentries staring down from the top of the Protestant church, complete with a machine-gun that, as Daly and O’Donoghue could see all too well:

…dominated the whole town, and from it our posts on the Masonic Hall and next door could be raked with gunfire. We were aghast…We were much disturbed by this breach of faith on the part of Holmes, and, moreover, their disregard for church and sanctuary showed a callous determination to seize every advantage ruthlessly.

The only thing left to do, it was agreed, was to pull out of Raphoe entirely. Daly assigned a team of riflemen to keep watch on the tower in case the men on top tried anything, while the rest of the forty or so Anti-Treatyites loaded their belongings from the Masonic Hall into the three or four cars and the van at their disposal.

Despite the tension in the air, the Free Staters did nothing as their Republican foes – as foes they now were for certain – left that evening, some onboard the vehicles, a few men on bikes, and the rest on foot, which meant that the unit made slow progress as it headed west, reaching seven miles from Raphoe before it stopped for the night.

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Country farmhouses in Co. Donegal

The barns of two nearby farmhouses provided the billets for the soldiers not on guard duty, while their officers took the opportunity to stretch out in relative comfort before the household hearths. Wherever the owners were consulted beforehand, O’Donoghue did not include when putting pen to paper for his memoirs. But then, Daly and his colleagues had other things on their minds than civilian sensitivities.[51]

After breakfast, Daly kept his address to his men, drawn up by the road as if on parade, short and direct. The Republic was under attack by Free State troops with British guns, he said. It now fell to every loyal Republican to defend the Republic by use of their own arms.

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IRA men

Despite the news from Dublin, and the evidence of their own eyes in Raphoe, the fact that their war had become a civil one had yet to sink in. Instead of striking back at the Free Staters, plans were drawn up for O’Donoghue and Jim Cotter, the Brigade Quartermaster, to lead a flying column over to Tyrone and attack the British base in Clancy. By doing so, they would hopefully incite the ancestral enemy to retaliate and thus provide common ground for Republicans and Free Staters alike to rally on.

What, after all, did they have to lose in trying?

O’Donoghue and Cotter led their charges over to Castlefin, a few miles from Clancy, and took up residence in Castlefin House. The mistress of the mansion took the arrival of her unexpected guests in good stride, and even offered O’Donoghue a glass of Belfast whiskey. As it was dark, the IRA men would sleep there before moving on to Clancy.[52]

Castlefin

Together in the same bed, O’Donoghue and Cotter were rudely awoken by the sounds of commotion outside. Pausing only to pull on his trousers and retrieve his pistol from underneath the pillow, O’Donoghue hurriedly made his way downstairs:

Out on the lawn beneath some trees, I saw a number of uniformed figures – Free State soldiers. Cotter, too, had come up, gun in hand. We rushed towards the Free Staters. They carried rifles, but seemed uncertain what to do and made no attempt to threaten or molest us.

To O’Donoghue’s surprise, the other men initially mistook him and Cotter for two of their own. But the anti-Treaty pair remained in a perilous position as they stood there, semi-clothed, with only a revolver apiece, while surrounded. The rest of the column were still inside Castlefin House, evidently all asleep if the Free Staters had been able to approach undetected.

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Free State soldiers

Something had clearly gone amiss with their sentry system, leaving O’Donoghue no choice but to think on his feet:

Our problem – how to extricate our sleeping warriors from the house in which they were now trapped and all of them blissfully unaware of their predicament.

O’Donoghue sent his companion back inside while he kept the Pro-Treatyite in charge, Colonel Tom Glennon, talking long enough for Cotter to rouse reinforcements:

A number of figures, half-dressed and carrying rifles at the ready, appeared in full view at some of the windows…Glennon was impressed and his manner took on a conciliatory tone.

Glennon inquired if Daly was at hand. When O’Donoghue said no, asking as to why, the Colonel explained that Sweeney, his commanding officer, was keen to talk to him. O’Donoghue said that he would see what he could do and, with that, Glennon withdrew his soldiers from Castlefin House.

For O’Donoghue, it came not a moment too soon. “I heaved a huge sigh of relief,” he wrote. “I was both curious and optimistic about the proposed interview.[53]

Churchill

The parley was held inside Wilkins’ Hotel at Churchill village, with Sweeney and Glennon in the green uniforms of the Free State military, opposite the Anti-Treatyites in civilian clothes: Daly as the acting O/C, his deputy O’Donoghue, and the other four members of the anti-Treaty First Northern Division available. Daly had met the two Free Staters before, while accompanying Lehane to Drumboe Castle, two months and what felt like a lifetime ago, while Glennon and O’Donoghue were already acquainted from their impromptu diplomacy at Castlefin House.[54]

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Churchill, Co. Donegal, today

“Joe Sweeney came by begging to me for a settlement,” was how Daly described it in a letter, with a sneer. “I gave him to understand that we would fight just as hard as ever we fought against the Tommies or the Tans.”[55]

O’Donoghue remembered the exchanges as civil, even friendly. Daly and Sweeney did the bulk of the talking, with O’Donoghue and Glennon occasionally chipping in, leaving the rest as silent, somewhat awkward, onlookers. Sweeney made the offer to allow the Southern IRA men to leave the county with their arms and transport, while the Donegal natives could return to their homes in peace.

Daly held his ground, refusing what would amount to a surrender on his part, and proposed instead that the two armies observe a ‘live and let live’ attitude towards each other. As at the earlier meeting in Drumboe Castle, the crux of the matter, in Sweeney’s view, was one of authority – the Free State must be recognised as such in Donegal and none other. But, for Daly, only the Republic held any legitimacy.

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Anti-Treaty poster

“This was stalemate,” O’Donoghue wrote:

Conversation became desultory and the conference began to disintegrate into three or four little groups. Refreshments were given out. Sweeney and Glennon declined joining in a cup of tea. Sweeney rose at last and, addressing me, said they would have to be going. All the time our men armed loafed or strolled around outside in the little village eagerly awaiting the result of our talks.

As the Free State pair were saying their goodbyes to Daly, O’Donoghue was pulled over by Jim Lane, a fellow Corkman who had served in Tom Barry’s renowned column. What Lane said shocked O’Donoghue: that some of their Northern comrades, including a notably bloodthirsty individual called Jordan, were planning to waylay the two Pro-Treatyites as they left the village and murder them.

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IRA members

Plans Afoot

O’Donoghue took Daly aside in turn and relayed what Lane had told him:

[Daly] was appalled. The soul of honour himself, he could hardly believe that any republican soldier could stoop to such treachery and disgrace and dishonour a pledge of safe conduct.

To nip the conspiracy in the bud, Daly ordered Lane to ensure that none of the others left Churchill when Sweeney and Glennon did; Jordan, in particular, was to be kept an eye on. When this was done, Daly and O’Donoghue rejoined the two Free Staters, both of whom were seemingly oblivious to the threats swirling around them.

“Oh, right-o!” said Sweeney as he took the wheel of his car, besides a wordless Glennon. “We’ll be off so.”

Sweeney looked momentarily worried when O’Donoghue said he would not be escorting them back. Perhaps he suspected the presence of something lurking beneath the amiable surface before him, but he drove off all the same, trusting in the promise of safe passage Daly had given before and staunchly upheld.

O’Donoghue never saw Sweeney again. “Did Joe Sweeney ever know that he owed his safe return and probably his life that fateful day to Charlie Daly?” O’Donoghue was to ponder. Probably not, he concluded, “for, seven months later, he ordered the shooting of Daly by a Free State firing squad in Drumboe Castle after having kept him for months a prisoner-of-war.”[56]

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A (presumably staged) photograph of an execution during the Civil War

When writing up his own recollections. Sweeney made no reference to owing Daly anything. But ordering his execution in March 1923, as per the instructions from Dublin in regard to POWs caught bearing arms, was one of the hardest things he had to do in a war where hardness soon became a requisite.

While not present at the end, Sweeney had organised the firing squad beforehand and held no illusions about his culpability. “It was particularly difficult because Daly and I had been very friendly,” he wrote, “and it is an awful thing to kill a man in cold blood.”

masscard2-673x1024Slaying a man in the heat of battle was one thing, and Sweeney, as a veteran of the Easter Rising and the subsequent guerrilla campaign, was certainly no shrinking violet. But putting a man up against a wall, to be shot down on cue, and then delivering a final bullet through the heart to be sure – that was something else entirely. Best not dwell on it too much, in Sweeney’s view: “I’ve tried to wipe it out of my mind as much as possible because it is not pleasant to think about.”[57]

See also: A Debatable Ambush: The Newtowncunningham Incident in Co. Donegal, May 1922

References

[1] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 287-8

[2] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 34

[3] Griffith and O’Grady, pp. 38-9, 53

[4] Ibid, pp. 64-5, 71

[5] Ibid, p. 75

[6] Ibid, p. 133

[7] Ibid, pp. 160-2

[8] Ibid, pp. 264-5

[9] Ibid, pp. 268-9

[10] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), p. 211

[11] Sweeney, Joseph Aloysius (Military Archives, 24SP2913) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R1/24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney/W24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney.pdf (Accessed 29/01/2019), p. 41

[12] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741 – Part II), p. 47

[13] Ibid, p. 109

[14] Ibid, pp. 49-50

[15] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[16] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[17] Ibid, 12/05/1922, 19/05/1922

[18] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[19] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, pp. 68-9

[20] Ibid, p. 68

[21] Ibid, p. 70

[22] Ibid, p. 53

[23] Ibid, p. 62

[24] Smyth, Nicholas (BMH / WS 721), pp. 7-9

[25] Ibid, p. 15

[26] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 55

[27] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 366

[28] O’Reilly, Terence. Rebel Heart: George Lennon, Flying Column Commander (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009), p. 165

[29] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 56

[30] Ibid, pp. 57-8

[31] Ibid, p. 59

[32] Ibid, p. 64

[33] Ibid, p. 65

[34] Ibid, pp. 66-7

[35] Ibid, p. 67

[36] Ibid, p. 68

[37] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 204

[38] Ibid, p. 205

[39] Ibid

[40] Andrews, p. 238

[41] Prendergast, Seán (BMH / WS 755 – Part 3), p. 192

[42] O’Malley, West Cork Interviews, p. 118

[43] Griffith and O’Grady, p. 275

[44] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 33

[45] Ibid

[46] O’Donoghue, pp. 116-7

[47] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 71

[48] Ibid, p. 72

[49] O’Donoghue, pp. 116-8

[50] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 72

[51] O’Donoghue, pp. 118-20

[52] Ibid, pp. 120-2

[53] Ibid, pp. 122-5

[54] Ibid, p. 126

[55] O’Malley, Interviews with the Northern Divisions, p. 72

[56] O’Donoghue, pp. 126-9

[57] Griffith and O’Grady, pp. 305-6

Bibliography

Books

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

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

O’Reilly, Terence. Rebel Heart: George Lennon, Flying Column Commander (Cork: Mercier Press, 2009)

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Prendergast, Seán, WS 755

Smyth, Nicholas, WS 721

Newspaper

Derry Journal

Military Service Pensions Collection

Sweeney, Joseph Aloysius (Military Archives, 24SP2913) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R1/24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney/W24SP2913JosephAloysiusSweeney.pdf (Accessed 29/01/2019)

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Dysfunction Junction: The Rising That Wasn’t in Co. Kerry, April 1916

‘Richard Morton’

It was just another morning for Constable Bernard Reilly as he waited out his shift at Ardfert Station, Co. Kerry, on the 21st April 1916, Good Friday, when a man came by to report a boat seen down by Banna Strand. Reilly passed this on to his superior, Sergeant Tom Hearne, who went to investigate with Constable Robert Larke.

All three were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force tasked with upholding law and order throughout Ireland – British law and order, that is. It was a centuries-old state of affairs that some, unbeknown to Reilly and his colleagues, were planning to change and soon – within the next few days, in fact.

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RIC Barracks, Ardfert, Co. Kerry

Hearne and Larkin returned to the station at 11 am with a horse and cart, on top of which was a boat. As well as the abandoned vessel, the two RIC men had found on the beach three Mauser pistols, some ammunition, two or three signalling lamps and several maps, including one of the locality. Talk about town was of three strangers seen walking inland from the direction of Banna Strand, presumably having come in off the boat in question.

Sergeant Hearne sent a report via the Ardfert post office to the RIC headquarters in Tralee and then took Larke and Reilly to search for the rumoured trio. After fruitlessly knocking on the doors of houses in the vicinity, Hearne, accompanied by Reilly, decided to give McKenna’s Fort a try. While the sergeant treated himself to a smoke outside, Reilly entered the Fort, if that was not too grand a name for the overgrown, long-abandoned rath.

Sir Roger Casement (1864-1916). Mckenna''s Fort Where Casement Was Captured. He Was Hanged For Treason.
McKenna’s Fort, Ardfert, Co. Kerry

As he did so:

…a man approached me from the shrubbery. He was a tall gentleman. He looked foreign to me and not generally the type one meets in a street. There was nothing unusual about his clothes. He wore a beard and had more or less an aristocratic appearance.

This regal-looking individual introduced himself as Richard Morton, a writer from England who was in Kerry researching for a book he was writing on St Brendan the Navigator, a local celebrity from antiquity. As he spoke, Morton fiddled with a sword-stick, drawing the blade in and out, while glancing over his shoulder as if looking for someone.

So that there would be no misunderstanding, Reilly advised the other man to refrain from unsheathing his weapon or else he would shoot with his own. Actually, the rifle Reilly carried was unloaded but there was no need for the twitchy visitor to know otherwise.

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‘Richard Morton’

When Sergeant Hearne appeared, Morton repeated his story to him. Not wholly convinced by this, Hearne asked him if he could come with them to the station, to which the self-proclaimed Englishman agreed. He had probably guessed he had little in the way of choice on the matter.

The two policemen and their surprise acquaintance walked to the public road, about seventy-five yards from the fort, where they came across a boy called Martin Collins, who was driving a pony and trap. Commandeering a ride, if temporarily, Reilly put Morton on the trap and, sitting firmly beside him, rode off, with Hearne and Collins waiting behind.

Reilly took him to a farmhouse where lived Mary Gorman, who had first spotted the three mystery men leaving from Banna Strand while she milked the cows. After Gorman identified Morton as one of the trio, Reilly returned with him to where Hearne and Collins were waiting.

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Mary Gorman and Martin Collins at the trial of Casement in London, May 1916

The RIC men gave the pony and trap back to the boy, who, his curiosity piqued, followed the small group of Hearne, Reilly and Morton as they walked the mile back to Ardfert Station. It was by then midday. Collins handed a slip of paper to Reilly, which their new friend had dropped. Written on it was part of a code – useless in itself, but something which would later serve as evidence in a trial that resulted in the sentence of death for ‘Richard Morton’ or, rather, Sir Roger Casement.[1]

Germany Calling

For Casement, it was a strangely anticlimactic end to an adventure that had promised so much at the start. “At last in Berlin! The journey done – the effort perhaps only begun!” he wrote in his diary in October 1914. “Shall I succeed? Will they see the great cause aright and understand all it may mean to them, no less to Ireland?”[2]

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Berlin, 1914

The answer, initially, was ‘yes’; his new allies did indeed see the worth of the mission Casement brought before them. A succession of German officials listened sympathetically as he spoke of his dreams of enlisting their nation’s help in securing the freedom of his own, though their sanguinity could give even him pause. When Casement warned Baron Wilheim von Stumm that Britain had the means to prolong its current war with Germany for years, the Director of the Political Department at the Foreign Office laughed.

“What can she do to us?” von Stumm replied. “Her fleet is become a laughing stock.”[3]

By April 1916, almost two years later, Casement was straining to escape his host country. “My last day in Berlin! Thank God!” Even a possible fate at the end of an English noose did nothing to deter him. “Oh! To see the misted hills of Kerry and the coast and to tread the fair strand of Tralee!”[4]

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Roger Casement at leisure

He had already been informed, on the 30th March, about the planned uprising in Ireland. As the Germans initially declined to provide any weapons or men to help, Casement could foretell only disaster. “I said I could guarantee no revolution and that I sincerely hoped there would be none!”[5]

The next day, he was wheezing in bed, struck down by a lung congestion, but no less committed to returning, if only to put a stop to this rebellion-in-the-works. That the Germans had at last consented to provide help, in the form of a steamer loaded with weapons for Tralee Bay, on Easter Monday, but only on condition of the Irish rebels being out in the field already on the Sunday, was enough to send Casement into a rage: “The utter callousness & indifference here – only seeking bloodshed in Ireland.”[6]

The only thing left for him to do was board the submarine provided for him and put Baron von Stumm’s lofty dismissal of the Royal Navy to the test.

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Casement in the tower of the German U-boat, with crew

Casement was not looking forward to the journey – twelve days, he reckoned, inside a stinking, suffocating confinement – but it would be worth it once he reached his homeland. He had been assured they would make it in time but Casement nursed his doubts: “My first fear is that we shall never land – but be kept off the shore until the ‘rebellion’ breaks out.”[7]

And that was the last line in his diary, though there was still much to happen. Too much, and also too little.

Homecoming

Accompanying Casement on his return home were Captain Robert Monteith and Sergeant Daniel Bailey. The former had come to Germany to assist Casement with setting up the ‘Irish Brigade’, made up of Irish POWs, while the latter was one of these said recruits, before the project was set aside as a failure.

casements-ncosThe Germany Navy had at least rowed back on its original demands for an Irish rebellion to have broken out the day before the weapons shipment landed. Instead, a vessel was now set to arrive between Holy Thursday, the 20th April, and Easter Sunday, the 23rd, the window of four days being regarded by the German planners as sufficient to account for the vagaries of weather. As the insurrection was timed for the Sunday, according to the missives from the revolutionary leadership in Dublin, the haul of 20,000 rifles should arrive in time for the rebels to be thus equipped for when they set forth.

As he listened to these arrangements being laid out at the Admiralty in Berlin, Monteith was dismayed at what he considered to be a pitifully inadequate donation of weapons, and said as much. It was brutally clear, however, that that was all the Irish cause could expect from its ‘gallant allies’. At least a bedridden Casement was elated when Monteith brought the news to him – any development was better than none at this point.[8]

Nonetheless, the three Irishmen found much to brood over as the U-boat took them over the northern tip of Britain and down the Irish west coast. They had been away for so long that they knew little about how things stood in their country. Nor could they be sure about the Aud – the steamer carrying the rifles – arriving in time, if at all, and whether the rebellion Casement dreaded would happen regardless.

When the U-boat passed the mouth of the Shannon, on the evening of the 20th April, the trio watched from the conning tower, peering into the starless night for the pilot boat that was due to guide them but its twin green lights – the prearranged signal – never materialised.

Other lights came and went but never the ones they so desperately sought. Neither did the Aud appear, though the Irishmen had spotted it earlier in the day. Finally, the submarine captain announced that they could wait no longer and set the course for full speed towards Tralee Bay. As the three Irishmen prepared to disembark, Monteith loaded his pistol, and then tried teaching Casement how to use his.

“It is quite possible we may either kill or be killed,” Monteith warned but Casement had never handled a gun before and, besides, he appeared too sick to be of any use in a fight. Monteith suggested some sleep but, what with all the worry, that was also unlikely to happen.

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Casement (second from the left) onboard the German submarine, with Bailey (left) and Beverley (third from right)

Instead, they gloomily discussed their odds. While they had evaded British patrol ships, Casement did not think the German steamer would be so lucky. Other than the loss of the much-needed weaponry, such a find, Casement feared, would almost certainly put the authorities on their guard.

Further talk was curtailed by a German officer telling them that it was time to go ashore. When Monteith saw the size of the boat that was to carry them, he had the presence of mind to request three lifebelts. Casement sat in the stern, Monteith the bow, and Bailey in between as the boat was lowered onto the lazily rolling waves. Its duty done, the submarine receded into the dark, leaving the three companions to face the unknown.[9]

Hunting for Help

As the captain had refused them a motor, lest the sound betray the German presence – concern for the Irishmen was not so forthcoming – the tiny crew had to make do with rowing. Somehow they avoided drowning, though just about. A landlubber at heart, Monteith pushed his oar too deeply and went overboard, head first, before Bailey hauled him back.

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The boat Casement, Monteith and Beverley took to Banna Strand (now in the Imperial War Museum, London

When they were close enough to shore, Monteith jumped out, standing up to his waist in the water while Bailey unloaded, first their equipment and then Casement, who was practically an invalid by then. Monteith tried scuttling the boat but the wood was too hard for his knife, the only tool he had at hand, and so he abandoned the task.

But the wretched tub was not yet finished with me. As I was about to leave, a wave struck it, and drove it sideways on top of my right foot. This wrenched my ankle, adding a little to my general discomfort. I scrambled away, and went up to the beach.

All three men were stretched out on the sand, soaked to the skin, bereft of sleep and food save for the little they could keep down during the past few days of seasickness. Casement looked the worst, being barely conscious, and Monteith had to make him move about so as to restore some semblance of circulation to his limbs.

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Banna Strand, Co. Kerry

With dawn fast approaching, the trio knew they had to act. Given the perilous state of Casement’s health, it was decided to leave him in hiding while the other two walked into Tralee, their plan from there being to procure a motorcar for Dublin. So as to not stand out when reaching civilisation, they buried their Mauser pistols, ammunition belts, field glasses and the rest of the equipment, save their overcoats, in the beach.

Striking inland, they stumbled into some bogland, as if they were not damp enough already. Sunrise gave them some comfort, as well as a better view, and, coming to firmer land, they found a ruined old castle which they had been considering as the best place to leave Casement. Seeing it in the cold light of day, however, the group were forced to rethink that plan – Monteith did not think the castle large enough to hide a cat – and so it was agreed to keep going and find a better site.

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Irish bogland

As they passed a farmhouse on the road:

Looking over the wall, we saw a young girl, her hair tousled and untidy, blinking at the sun and leaning on a half door. She saw us, and stared in a manner that showed it was unusual for strangers to pass along that road so early in the morning.

Considering their bedraggled state, it was hardly surprising that they would attract attention, from Mary Gorman or anyone, at any time of the day. The trio were more careful when a cart rumbled their way on the road. Crossing the fence to the side, they hid among the bushes until the cart passed, its two passengers seemingly none the wiser.

Half an hour later, they had a second bit of good fortune when finding the remnants of an ancient hill-fort, thick with shrubbery. That seemed an opportune place to leave Casement, better than the previous choice in any case, and so the other two pressed on while their comrade recuperated as best he could.[10]

Tralee

Following the shore road, Monteith and Bailey were able to cover the eight miles to Tralee in good time. Carefully avoiding the RIC station at Ardfert – whose occupants would soon be paying a visit to Casement in McKenna’s Fort – they saw no one except a surly farmer, who did not bother to return their greeting, and then a sole policeman, who took one look at the pair before continuing on his way. The two men breathed a sigh of relief at this timely piece of official negligence.

It was 7 am on Good Friday morning when they reached Tralee. There were some people about but no shops open, save for a few newsagents. Both Monteith and Bailey were so ignorant of the area that they decided their only chance lay in finding someone who wore a tricolour or, failing that, a newsagent that sold the more radical papers in the hope that their sympathies were as republican as their stock.

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Tralee, Co. Kerry (1905?)

They had no such luck until coming across a hairdresser’s saloon, with posters outside of The Irish Volunteer and The Worker’s Republic, exactly the sort of titles they were seeking. The saloon was not open but the neighbouring door was and so the pair took the chance of accepting the invite of a shave from the man standing there:

We entered and found ourselves in a news agent’s shop, which was lighted by the doorway only as the shutters were not yet off the windows. The proprietor, whose name was [George] Spicer, informed me that he worked both the news agent’s and hair dressing shops, and that his son would be down in a minute to shave me.

Having gone too far to back away now, Monteith asked Spicer for the name and address of whoever led the Irish Volunteers around there, adding that he and his companion were on important business concerning them. As proof of his urgency, he pointed to their wet clothes.

austin_stackAfter thinking it over, Spicer called his son down and told him to go fetch Austin Stack, the commander in question. All Monteith and Bailey could do in the meantime was wait: “We were counting the minutes as we thought of poor Casement away out in the old fort, wet, cold and hungry, waiting for a car that never came.”

When Stack arrived, he was accompanied by his aide, Con Collins, who had met Monteith before and was able to vouch for him to his commandant. Monteith gave them the basic details of Casement’s plight, including his need to go to Dublin and get in touch with the leadership of the Irish Volunteers there. Stack promptly dispatched a man to find a motor car for that purpose.

When Monteith asked after the German ship with the arms, Stack replied that his orders were that the vessel in question was not due to reach Tralee Bay until Easter Sunday, in two days’ time:

He had no information of the ship being already in the bay. I urged that he send a pilot out at once and told him what the ship carried. I told him there was no artillery coming, neither officers nor artillery men. Stack made no comment beyond saying that as far as his orders went, the ship was not to come in until Sunday night.[11]

In fact, there had been talk of a strange vessel sighted off Fenit Point on the previous day, Thursday, leading to a trusted Volunteer, William Mullins, being sent there to investigate. After talking to a few locals, Mullins returned to Tralee to report his belief that the rumours had been entirely spurious.[12]

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The Aud, the German ship carrying the rifles

The Larger Project

And now these two outsiders had appeared out of nowhere to tell Stack that his orders from Dublin were wrong. That they were there at all put him in an awkward position, threatening as they did, with their mere presence and unsolicited updates, the plans for the Rising in Kerry.

For Stack, the event had been a long time in the making, ever since he was summoned to Dublin, sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, for an interview with Patrick Pearse, on the grounds of the latter’s school of St Enda’s. Accompanying Stack was Alf Cotton, a Belfast native who had been sent to Kerry by their mutual superiors to help Stack lay the groundwork for….something.

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St Enda’s School, Dublin

That something was revealed by Pearse to be a full-scale insurrection of the Irish Volunteers throughout the country, timed for the Easter Week of 1916. A series of parades would provide cover for the different units to muster, after which they would act on their respective instructions.

Those for the Tralee Company were more elaborate than most. Besides the usual targets – such as the RIC barracks, the post office and the train station – the Kerry Volunteers were to greet a ship carrying German arms at Fenit Pier and then help with the logistics of transporting the cargo, via commandeered trains, along the west of Ireland, where the Volunteer companies on the route would take their share.

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Irish Volunteers

Concerned about the difficulties the vessel in question would face, from the dangers of fog or storm, to running the blockade of British warships, Cotton suggested alternatives, such as landing the supplies in smaller amounts at different points, or even the use of Zeppelins to bypass the Royal Navy altogether, but Pearse insisted that the arrangements had already been set in motion.

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Patrick Pearse

Pearse also stressed the need for absolute secrecy. Information was to be limited to a select few, only when necessary, and never more than needed. Previous rebellions had floundered from a fatal leakage of intelligence, a negligence which Pearse was determined would not be repeated this time.

“Secrecy was to be preserved up to the very last minute,” as Cotton described. “Much depended on the element of surprise both for our local activities and for the larger project.”[13]

Pearse reinforced these instructions on a visit to Tralee, three or four weeks before Easter Week. In particular, Stack was to keep his men on a tight leash, at least until Easter Sunday, the designated date, lest any premature deed tip their hand to the British authorities.[14]

‘The Game is Up’

This was something Stack kept at the forefront of his mind during those hectic hours, when he struggled to fulfil the duties bestowed on him by Pearse, while juggling with the sudden demands thrust on him by Monteith and Beverley. As his widow put it:

Austin was blamed by some for not trying to organise a rescue of Sir Roger Casement and I know he felt very sore about it, but he always said his orders were definite that no shot should be fired before the start of general hostilities on Easter Sunday and he knew well that any fracas that might take place in Tralee would frustrate all the plans made for the Rising.[15]

But first Stack made an attempt to retrieve Casement from where the newcomers said they left him. When the car Stack requested pulled up outside, he and Collins got in, along with Bailey, while Monteith stayed behind. As a guide, however, Bailey left something to be desired, ignorant as he was of the locality, with only the information that Casement was “somewhere on Banna Strand” to offer.

Which was better than nothing. Stack recruited Maurice Moriarty, a Tralee Volunteer, to put his profession as a chauffeur to use in driving him, Collins and Bailey to Banna Strand, taking care to avoid the police base at Ardfert. When they came across a horse and cart, managed by two RIC men from the opposite direction, Stack asked Bailey if the boat on top was his.

When Bailey replied that it was the same, Stack could only exclaim: “Oh, God, lads, the game is up.”

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RIC men with Casement’s boat from Banna Strand

Worse, there were about twenty policemen posted about Banna Strand, obviously on the lookout. Finding Casement suddenly became the least of their concerns. “The game is up,” Stack repeated, according to Moriarty. “What are we going to do now?”

As a RIC officer, Sergeant Daniel Croly, came their way, it was quickly agreed inside the car that they would pose as innocent sightseers. It was then that one of their tyres burst, prompting the startled sergeant to accuse them of firing a gun at him. The police were clearly on edge, though how much the authorities knew was yet uncertain.

Bluffing and Brazening

When Croly had calmed down:

He then got curious and demanded an explanation of our presence on the Strand. I [Moriarty] told him my passengers were visitors on holiday, they wished to travel along the sea coast, and that I was under the impression it was possible to get to Ballyheigue by following the beach.

The sergeant did not seem wholly convinced by this but left them alone long enough for the four men to change their tyre and drive away to Lawlor’s Cross. Croly followed them there on a bicycle and continued his questioning, such as whether they had heard anything about a boat landing that morning.

When Stack replied that he did not, Croly continued: “Yes, we got the boat and we got our man, too.”

When the policeman next asked what he would do if put under arrest, Stack threatened to make a fight of it. After some more verbal toing-and-froing, Croly finally searched the car and, finding nothing of note, let them go. Even that was not the last the Volunteers saw of the sergeant, for when they drove on to Ballyheigue – to go anywhere else would have only incited more suspicion – and called into a pub:

After we were there some time I [Moriarty] saw Sergeant [Croly] going into the Post Office. I called Stack’s attention to this and Stack said, “Yes, I saw him. I suppose he is ‘phoning all over Ireland. We are done now.”

Stack’s gloom seemed justified when they travelled on to Causeway village, to be confronted by an RIC patrol on the alert for their car. Collins was searched when he got out and taken away to the barracks when a Webley revolver was found on him.

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Webley revolver, of the type used in 1916

Stack made a tougher show of it, admitting that he had a loaded automatic, along with spare ammunition and some documents, but that, when asked if he had the paperwork for the gun: “No Irishman needs a certificate these days to carry firearms.”

When the sergeant in charge weakly admitted this was the case, Stack boldly went to the barracks, gun still in hand, and came out a few minutes later with Collins. Stack had brazened his way and that of his comrades out of trouble but it was clear now that the risks of keeping Bailey, a stranger to the area, around for any longer were too great. After they drove out of Causeway, they stopped at Ballymacaurin village to leave Bailey at the house of a Volunteer.

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Con Collins

The remaining three returned to Tralee, their journey done, with Stack warning the others to deny anything if asked. As Moriarty left to park the car, he noticed an increased RIC presence on the streets. He had just finished dinner at home when another policeman came to ask about his passengers that day. Moriarty stuck to his script and insisted that the others had merely been tourists.[16]

Austin Stack

Stack and Collins were likewise questioned together at the former’s house by a constable, with Stack waxing indignant at how their trip that morning had been ruined by intrusive peelers. After sharing a light meal, Collins left to see a friend in town, while Stack went to the Rink, a hall rented by the Irish Volunteers for their activities.

Stack had previously called a meeting for there, ostensibly to organise a parade, set to be held on the Sunday, in two days’ time. In reality, the event was intended only as an excuse for the Volunteers to muster, just before the Rising was due to begin, a motive Stack had been keeping to himself. True to his instructions for absolute secrecy until the last possible moment, he continued the charade as he sat down to work out the details of the phoney parade with the other officers in attendance.

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Irish Volunteers

The session was almost concluded when Collins’ friend in town, Michael O’Flynn, came in to take Stack aside. O’Flynn told him that he had been with Collins when the RIC came to arrest the latter, and he was now passing on the other man’s request for Stack to see him in the station. Stack agreed to do so and returned to the meeting, when another piece of bad fortune arrived, courtesy of a Volunteer who had come from Ardfert on a bicycle:

I saw this scout immediately and the news that he had for me was to the effect that the Ardfert police had brought to the barracks, as a prisoner, a tall bearded man. At once I knew that this was Sir Roger Casement.

When Stack broke this news to the others in the Rink, the immediate response was a call to attempt a rescue. It was not something Stack could allow, given his orders – as he now revealed – to keep everyone quiet until the appointed time on Sunday. After dissuading the rest from taking any rash action, Stack next arranged for two couriers to be sent to inform Dublin of the developments, from Casement’s arrest to the premature arrival of the German ship.

The latter was a particular problem in Stack’s mind:

I had the view that it would be almost impossible for the vessel to escape on account of the capture of Sir Roger Casement, as the English were now certain to be keeping a sharp look-out everywhere about that part of the coast.[17]

The two messengers knew exactly where to go when they reached Dublin. Eoin MacNeill may have been Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers but the true power of the forthcoming revolution had gathered inside Liberty Hall.

James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and several others listened as one of the Kerrymen, William Mullins, delivered his report about Casement’s arrest and how, according to Casement, there would be arms coming from Germany but no soldiers. Mullins knew nothing about any uprising, though he must have suspected something upon seeing about sixty or seventy men in a room inside Liberty Hall, busily preparing gun cartridges.

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Armed men standing to attention outside Liberty Hall, Dublin

If his listeners were fazed at the news, they did not show it. “There will be no change in the original plans,” Pearse told Mullins to pass on back to Kerry.[18]

Surprises

Stack, meanwhile, had gone to the RIC barracks as requested, where he asked to speak to Collins. The constable on duty excused himself after asking the visitor to remain in the room, and there an unsuspecting Stack was waiting when, a few minutes later, the constable returned with several of his colleagues to put him under arrest.[19]

It is unlikely that the police were aware of how effectively their capture of Stack had decapitated the Kerry Volunteers, the vast majority of whom were only dimly aware, at best, that anything was in the works. “Apart from rumours and whisperings of things to happen,” remembered Peter Browne, captain of the Scartaglin Company, “the average Volunteer had no official inkling of anything big coming off.”

The man best positioned to take over from Stack was Alf Cotton, the Volunteer organiser from Belfast, but he was nowhere to be found. Browne believed he had returned to his home city earlier in the year, apparently to take care of his sick mother. Cotton would be accused of being intentionally absent by Paddy Cahill, who, despite being next in line as battalion adjutant, knew only a little more than the rank-and-file.

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Irish Volunteers

When Browne interviewed him as part of a history project, “Paddy Cahill told me that he had no knowledge of the major plans for Kerry when Stack was arrested.” While Cahill knew there were weapons being shipped in, he had believed, like Stack, that they would not be due until Easter Sunday.

“It later transpired that the sinking of the Aud had completely upset the plans locally and nationally,” Browne wrote. “What the plans for this were never came to light.”

It says much about the confusion surrounding the Easter Week of 1916, even years later, that when Browne suggested he write up his version of events, Cahill replied that he had done so already and sent it to Stack’s widow for the book she was writing about her husband. Browne asked Winifred Stack about it, shortly after Cahill’s death, only to be told that she had not received any such information from him.[20]

Hiding Out

Monteith was better informed than most in Kerry; he, at least, knew there was supposed to be a Rising. But, in other respects, he was as woefully ignorant as any.

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Eoin MacNeill

When the two messengers went to Dublin, Monteith assumed they were making for Eoin MacNeill as Chief of Staff. It never occurred to him that the couriers would go instead to Liberty Hall and bypass the chain of command as he knew it. Nor did his Kerry compatriots make any effort to bring him up to date.

He was a man groping in the dark, as he later described it, a fact that continued to rankle by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs: “These men with me knew that my life was not worth a moment’s purchase, yet they did not enlighten me.”

By Friday night, Monteith had learnt from the evening papers about the arrests of Stack and Collins, along with the discovery of the boat by which he and the other two had left the U-boat. “It was a peculiar report to read of one’s own adventures,” he mused.

With little else to do until the big event on Sunday, Monteith laid low in a friendly house. That the Volunteers had thought to post an armed guard inside was of some comfort, though otherwise the news on Saturday morning was hardly reassuring: British soldiers had come into Tralee by train, while armed RIC men stalked the streets of the town.

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British army patrol

Several times, an enemy patrol would pass by the house, with Monteith watching anxiously from behind a window curtain until they had gone. When he finally ventured out, on Saturday night, it was in a workman’s garb, complete with a greasy cap over his head and chimney soot on his face.[21]

“If the police stop us or try to arrest you,” said one of the Kerrymen to their charge, “we will open fire.”

He meant it as a reassurance, but Monteith was unimpressed. He had not made it thus far without appreciating the virtue of caution, after all. “I am the officer. I have more authority,” he replied tartly. “There is to be no firing.”[22]

Assuming Command

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Robert Monteith

Around a dozen other men were waiting for them at the Rink, standing to attention and under the command of Paddy Cahill. At least, Monteith assumed Cahill was in charge, until the Kerryman told him that the authority was now his. Orders had come in to that effect, said Cahill, though he was coy when asked on whose authority. Monteith tried to talk himself out of it, arguing that he knew nothing about Tralee, either the area or its men, but Cahill was adamant.

Finally, Monteith gave in and assumed responsibility, however flabbergasting he found it. “Here was an amazing situation,” he wrote in his memoirs. “An officer, my senior, ordering me to take command, while he reverted to the ranks.”

At least he had his experience as an officer in the British Army to fall back on. Unfortunately, as he talked to his new subordinates in the Rink, it was apparent that the rest of the Irish Volunteers had not had the same level of training. Neither did they know much about what was to be done besides a vague notion of seizing the military barracks, RIC station, telegraph office and train station, before marching to the coastal village of Fenit and unloading the promised German arms from there. Any further details had been known only by Stack, and he was gone.

And then there was the issue of numbers. Monteith estimated he would have three hundred men at his disposal, of which only two-thirds were armed. Word was that reinforcements would join them from Dingle but no one could confirm this. Against them would be five hundred British soldiers and about two hundred policemen, and now with the advantage of surprise lost.

“I knew I had a full day’s work ahead of me,” Monteith recalled laconically.[23]

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British soldiers at a checkpoint

Easter Sunday

Monteith sent the officers home for the night while he stayed in the Rink and brooded on what to do. Holy Saturday passed into Easter Sunday, the day set for the Rising, and Monteith received word that at least one of the companies outside Tralee – he spared naming the unit in question for posterity – would not be making the rendezvous with destiny, the Volunteers having decided among themselves that, in light of the absence of German assistance, there was little point in continuing.

Not so doleful, Monteith yet had hope, however slim, in the arms-ship reaching them. To that end, he sent out scouts to Fenit Point, where the vessel was to come – if at all – and another in a car to Killarney in the hope of coordinating with the Irish Volunteers there should the arms arrive and, if so, with the aim of opening the way to their comrades in Limerick. “The Limerick men, I had been told, were to hold the line of the Shannon, what section I did not know, nor for what reason.”

And these questions were to remain unknown, for the messenger to Killarney never returned. The Fenit scouts did, to report the presence of two Royal Navy warships in the bay. So much for the Germans vessel then, for there was no hope now of it breaking through.

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James Connolly

At least the two messengers had reached their destination of Dublin, as shown by the return of a verbal message from James Connolly, to the effect that everything was alright and to continue as planned. What these plans were, however, remained sketchy, a situation his Kerry subordinates were of little help in remedying, often seeming to regard him with suspicion, to judge from their evasive, distinctly unhelpful responses to his queries.[24]

In that regard, Monteith was not imagining things. “Cahill did not trust Monteith as he or none of us knew anything about him,” remembered one of the men at the time.[25]

‘The Most Wonderful Part’

A glimmer of hope came with the only-half-expected Dingle contingent, at about 11 am, whose Volunteers had walked the thirty to forty miles to Tralee. Next were the Ballymacelligott men, adding their forty numbers to the Dingle hundred and twenty, while women from Cumann na mBan joined them to prepare some breakfast. Monteith now had about three hundred and twenty men to his command, although only two hundred were armed, either with a rifle or revolver.

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Irish Volunteers

Still, despite his professional misgivings, Monteith could not help but be touched by the display:

The most wonderful part of the whole thing, and perhaps the most tragic as I saw it, were boys of fourteen to seventeen years of age, marching in without as much as a walking stick with which to defend themselves, but all in the sure and certain hope of gaining a glorious victory over the usurping English.

Monteith told the Dingle captain to send out his charges with money to purchase supplies, enough for two days, and then be back at the Rink for 1.30 pm, half an hour before they would begin the Rising that would shake an empire. When Monteith asked if they were ready, the Dingle man replied: “Yes, in more ways than one, they have all been to the altar.”

It had started raining by the time a stranger, his face obscured by his collar upturned against the downpour, arrived at the Rink. When Monteith got a better look, he recognised him as Patrick Whelan, an acquaintance of his from their time together in the Limerick Volunteers. Monteith was eager to ascertain how things stood in Limerick but Whelan – after his surprise at seeing Monteith, thinking him still in Germany – brought word that abruptly rendered their plans irrelevant: all operations were to be cancelled. The Rising was over before it had even begun.

“Here was a pretty mix-up,” as Monteith put it, with masterly understatement.[26]

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The countermanding order that cancelled the Rising, as published in the ‘Irish Independent’

The End of Easter Week

After all the drama and tension of the past few days, Easter Monday was oddly quiet. By the evening, word of fighting in distant Dublin had begun to circulate, galvanising some of the Kerry Volunteers into mobilising that night, at the Rink again. Even then, caution ruled and most of the attendees were dismissed, with only twenty remaining to guard the hall for the night and to receive the scouts who were bringing messengers from the other units around Kerry.

With no one aware of the situation or sufficiently placed, after the loss of Stack and Cotton, to know what to do, all the men could do was wait…and wait.

“Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed off quietly,” remembered Peter Browne. “The Rink was full of Volunteers at all times and wild rumours were afloat about Dublin and other places. On Friday there were rumours of a surrender in Dublin.”

These defeatist reports were initially dismissed but, later in the day:

They were confirmed at Volunteer headquarters on Friday night. A meeting was arranged between the local British military officers and some Tralee citizens, including the clergy, which was attended by Volunteer representatives who agreed, in order to avoid arrests, to surrender all arms and ammunition to the military on or before Saturday.

At least the Kerry Volunteers, when this requirement was announced to them on parade on Friday night, could take some measure of defiance in denying the enemy the use of their weapons as the men grabbed hammers or sledges to smash the barrels of their guns. Browne was an exception as he instead smuggled his rifle out of the Rink beneath his coat. Four years passed before he could finally put it to use, in 1920, during an attack on a RIC barracks.[27]

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RIC Barracks

‘One Great Tragedy’

But, for now, it looked as if the movement was beaten. If the Kerry Volunteers had assumed that rolling over in submission would be the end of it, they were rudely disabused the following week, when it was reported, on the 11th May:

A Tralee message says that wholesale arrests of prominent members of the Sinn Fein organisation were effected throughout Kerry on Tuesday [9th May]. In Tralee, cavalry, infantry, and police turned out and halted opposite each house where arrests were made. Excitement ran high, but there was no disturbance.[28]

Such coordination by the RIC and British military showed that the authorities were taking no chances. When William Mullins saw a woman curse some prisoners being led away by British soldiers, he grabbed the Union Jack from her hands and tore it to pieces. He was arrested the next day, and taken to join the other detainees in Tralee Jail.[29]

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British soldiers in Ireland, with civilians

By then, Stack and Collins had already been removed from the gaol. Since his confinement there on Easter Saturday, Stack had remained out of the loop, save when two friends visited him on Monday to inform him of the cancellation order, leaving Stack to assume that that was the end of their venture.

He was still oblivious when he and Collins were ordered out of their cells on Easter Wednesday, marched to the train under heavy escort and transferred to Cork, and then Queenstown (now Cobh), before taken by steamer to Spike Island. The next three weeks were spent in the purgatory of solitary confinement, ignorant of the world beyond until, on the 13th May, the pair were transported to Dublin.

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British soldiers marching prisoners from the Rising through Dublin

While en route, their train stopped in Cork. The previously empty carriage they were held in was soon filled with prisoners from the Cork Volunteers. From them, Stack and Collins were able to learn of how rapidly the revolution had moved in their absence:

We were told of the Rising which had taken place in Dublin, Galway and Wexford, and which lasted until the following Sunday, and of the trials and executions…The burning of the GPO and other buildings in O’Connell St., Dublin, and many other details were discussed by our companions and ourselves.

To Stack, his head spinning at these revelations, “the whole thing at the moment seemed to be one great tragedy.”

Failure and/or Success

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Terence MacSwiney

More prisoners from Kerry and Limerick were added on board when the train paused at Mallow. Upon arrival in the capital – or what was left of it – they were marched en masse to Richmond Barracks, When locked in for the night, Stack and Collins found themselves in distinguished company, in the form of Arthur Griffith, Terence MacSwiney and Pierce McCann, and about thirty others, all crammed in a room meant for twelve, lacking blankets and with only the floorboards to sleep on.

Though conditions remained wretched and the rations no better, Stack was able to converse with MacSwiney, an old friend and the commander of the similarly ill-fated Cork attempt:

We compared notes as to the Insurrection which had taken place, and from the news which had begun to come to us from our visitors, we began to have hope that the people of the country had had the spirit of Nationality re-awakened in them.[30]

Such revived patriotism was on full display on the 31st August 1917, fifteen months after the Rising, at Caherciveen, where five hundred Kerry Volunteers assembled to welcome Stack, now a freed man, his life sentence having been revoked as part of the general amnesty. After a parade through the streets, the Volunteers drew up before a platform in the town square, from which a number of speakers, Stack among them, spoke to mark the forming of the local Sinn Féin Club, one of many which had been springing up all over Kerry and the rest of the country. The Caherciveen one alone could boast of two hundred members inducted on its opening day.

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Sinn Féin postcard, 1917/8

Stack had earlier attended, on the 28th July 1917, the Listowel Feis, as part of the promotion of the Irish tongue. After a lengthy address by Count Plunkett, whose son had been among those executed after the Rising, Stack next took the stage, appearing almost bashful before the crowd.

“Women and men of North Kerry, I can’t account for the fact that I am here today,” he began:

Or that I should be welcomed by you because, personally, I know I have done nothing to merit your kind reception. The little I had got to do in the matter of 1916 was, shall I say, somewhat of a failure.

This self-deprecation was met with cries of “It was a success!” When Stack continued, stating that he was no orator, nor intended to ever become one, a voice from the crowd suggested something better – “You’re a fighter!” – to general applause from an appreciative audience.[31]

Hard Facts

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Austin Stack

Regardless of what others said, Stack held no illusions as to whether the Rising in Kerry had been a success. Nor was he inclined to spare himself reproach. “I tried to keep it a one-man job,” he bemoaned in private, “and it was too much.”[32]

Stack had kept the plans so secret that his subordinates had been left floundering in his absence. His importance was singled out by County Inspector Hill, when testifying, on the 27th May 1916, to the Royal Commission, set up to investigate the disturbances of the month before:

Austin Stack was in charge of everything, and when he was arrested the Irish Volunteers who were assembled in Tralee became nervous. Those of them who were from the country districts gradually left for home.

This lack of coordination came under particular scrutiny by Sir Mackenzie Chalmers, one of the three members of the Commission, when he reviewed the checkmating of the Aud. Intercepted by British warships, the German vessel had been scuttled by its crew, who had then been taken into captivity.

Sir Mackenzie Chalmers: The German ship intended to land at Tralee?

Hill: Yes, by force.

Chalmers: There was not much preparation to receive it? Only two men in a motor car?

Hill: There was a large number in Tralee. My idea is that the ship came in a day or two too soon. She was unpunctual.

Another person of interest, Robert Monteith, was noted to be still at large.[33]

illuminations-captain-robert-monteith-aAfter the countermanding order had arrived at the Rink, Monteith decided that, since there was no further use for him with no Rising, the only thing he could do was run. The RIC were still on the lookout for the third man off the submarine, after all, and a strange face like his would be easy to pick out.

As a cover for his escape, it was arranged for him to leave after dark, amidst the Ballymacelligott Company while pretending to be just another local man. True to the secrecy that had characterised, and hamstrung, the Kerry Volunteers, only the Ballymacelligott captain and two others knew of Monteith’s identity.

These pair were put on either side of him as the company marched out of the Rink. A gas lamp lit up the area outside, allowing the police posted outside a good look at the departing Volunteers but the pace of the step, coupled with a downpour, allowed Monteith to escape undetected, hidden in plain sight.[34]

From there, Monteith fled, first to Limerick and then Liverpool, before finally reaching sanctuary in New York. He remained active in his country’s cause, via the Irish-American lobby, and later penned a memoir which captured the Rising-that-was-not in Kerry, in all its confusion.

“If there be readers who think I have been harsh, or unfair, or unduly severe,” he wrote in the preface, “I am sorry; but, I have to deal with men and hard facts.”[35]

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Roger Casement Memorial, Banna Strand, Co, Kerry

References

[1] Reilly, Bernard (BMH / WS 349), pp. 2-6

[2] Casement, Roger (edited by Mitchell, Angus) One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement, 1914-1916 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016), p. 41

[3] Ibid, p. 57

[4] Ibid, p. 232

[5] Ibid, p. 199

[6] Ibid, pp. 201, 221-2

[7] Ibid, p. 233

[8] Monteith, Robert. Casement’s Last Adventure (Chicago: Privately published, 1932), pp. 134-5

[9] Ibid, pp. 146-50

[10] Ibid, pp. 150-9

[11] Ibid, pp. 159-63

[12] Mullins, William (BMH / WS 123), p. 3

[13] Cotton, Alfred (BMH / WS 184), pp. 9-12

[14] Stack, Winifred (BMH / WS 214), p. 3

[15] Ibid, pp. 3-4

[16] Moriarty, Maurice (BMH / WS 117), pp. 2-4

[17] Stack, pp. 5-6

[18] Mullins, pp. 4-5

[19] Stack, p. 7

[20] Browne, Peter (BMH / WS 1110), pp. 4-5, 7-8

[21] Monteith, pp. 164-6

[22] Doyle, Michael (BMH / WS 1038), p. 6

[23] Monteith, pp. 166-7

[24] Ibid, pp. 171-2

[25] McEllistrim, Thomas (BMH / WS 275), p. 4

[26] Monteith, pp. 170-4

[27] Browne, pp. 8-9

[28] Irish Times, 11/05/1916

[29] Mullins, p. 4

[30] Stack, pp. 10-11

[31] Kerryman, 04/08/1917

[32] Lynch, Eamon (BMH / WS 17), p. 5

[33] Irish Times, 29/04/1916

[34] Monteith, pp. 175-6

[35] Ibid, p. xiv

Bibliography

Bureau of Military Statements

Browne, Peter, WS 1110

Cotton, Alfred, WS 184

Doyle, Michael, WS 1038

Lynch, Eamon, WS 17

McEllistrim, Thomas, WS 275

Moriarty, Maurice, WS 117

Mullins, William, WS 123

Reilly, Bernard, WS 349

Stack, Winifred, WS 214

Newspapers

Irish Times

Kerryman

Books

Casement, Roger (edited by Mitchell, Angus) One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement, 1914-1916 (Sallins, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2016)

Monteith, Robert. Casement’s Last Adventure (Chicago: Privately printed, 1932)

Book Review: Markievicz: Prison Letters & Rebel Writings, by Constance Markievicz (edited by Lindie Naughton) (2018)

Markievicz_cover“It is awfully funny being ‘on the run’!” wrote Countess Markievicz to her sister Eva, in January 1920. “I don’t know what I resemble most: the timid hare, the wily fox, or a fierce wild animal of the jungle.” For three months, she had been a free woman since leaving Cork Jail, on the 18th October 1919, in time for a police constable to be shot dead in Dublin later that evening.

The British authorities claimed a connection between that and her release; in any case, the situation was sufficiently unsettled in Ireland for a state crackdown on the burgeoning Republican movement, with house raids, arrests and, for some, deportations, hence the necessity of Markievicz staying one step ahead of the foreign foe.

Not that she appeared terribly concerned, at least in another letter to Eva: “I go about a lot, one way or another, and every house is open to me and everyone is ready to help.” When she felt like stretching her legs, she took a bicycle around Dublin, the startled expressions of policemen at the sight of a notorious rebel as she whizzed by amusing her considerably.

“There are very few women on bikes in the winter, so a hunted beast on a bike is very remarkable,” she pointed out.

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Countess Markievicz, posing in uniform with a pistol

But then, Markievicz was far from an ordinary individual. With a flourish, she signed the letter with the initials ‘I.C.A, T.D.’ after her name, the first set from her time in the Irish Citizen Army, which she had helped lead during the 1916 Rising, and the other due to her Dáil Éireann seat. Whatever her commitments, she took them seriously. When municipal local elections were held in January 1920, Markievicz publicly spoke on behalf of several female candidates in Dublin, despite her outlaw status and the threat of capture. At one such rally, as she related:

I wildly and blindly charged through a squad of armed police, sent there to arrest me, and the crowds swallowed me up and got me away. The children did the trick for me.

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Seán MacBride

But luck and pluck could only take her so far, and she was finally caught in September 1920, while driving back with Seán MacBride from a trip to the Dublin mountains. After all the close shaves, it was an absurdly minor oversight that undid her:

The police pulled us up because of the tail lamp not being there: they asked for a permit; [MacBride] had none, so they got suspicious and finally lit a match in my face and phoned for the military.

Confinement to Mountjoy did little to stem the flow of her correspondence. It was not all business; Markievicz thanked her sister for the fruit sent to her in prison. Eva was holidaying in Florence, and Markievicz was eager to hear the details. “You’ll be glad to hear that I am not on hunger strike at present,” she added near the end, almost as an afterthought.

To read her words is to be yanked back into the cut and thrust of Irish politics and war at a time when a thin line, at best, existed between the two. Despite the hardships, Markievicz thrived, and her letters show a remarkable range of interests, from cosy family chitchat to the finer points of literature. But a hunger for current affairs was never far from the surface, whether Ireland’s or elsewhere; Russia, for instance, pricked her notice. “I haven’t given up on the Bolshies yet,” she wrote. “I believe that they will greatly improve conditions for the world.”

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Markievicz speaking at a rally

On that particular point, the two siblings were not entirely in accord, though Markievicz sought to mollify the other somewhat: “I agree with you disliking the autocracy of any class, but surely if they have the sense to organise education, they can abolish class.” While she admitted the possibility of Communism becoming another tyranny, “it would be worth it in the long run. After all, as she blithely put it, “the French Revolution gave France new life, though all their fine ideas ended in horrors and bloodshed and wars. The world, too, gained.”

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Eva Gore-Boothe, Markievicz’s sister

Quite what the Bolsheviks would have made of the aristocratically-born Countess is another, unasked question. But then, Markievicz wasted little time worrying about what society thought. Her life was her own, and she lived it with scant regrets. In January 1924, barely a month out of her latest spell in prison – courtesy of her fellow countrymen this time – she explained to Eva her approach to the challenges in her life, such as the hunger strike she and the other Republican prisoners had just undertaken.

“I always rather dreaded a hunger strike,” she admitted:

But when I had to do it I found that, like most things, the worst of it was looking forward to the possibility of having to do it. I did not suffer at all but just stayed in bed and dozed and tried to prepare myself to leave the world.

The good news was that the prolonged starvation had alleviated her rheumatism. “Now, old darling, I must stop. Writing on a machine always tempts one to ramble on and on.”

Judging by the rest of her letters collected here, the typewriter was hardly the one to blame. Not that the reader, whether a learned historian or neophyte seeking to know more, is likely to mind. Few voices from the era were as loquacious or engaging as Countess Markievicz’s, as this book shows.

Publisher’s Website: Irish Academic Press

Originally published on The Irish Story (13/04/2019)

A Choice of Green: The South Longford By-Election, May 1917

Vote for McGuinness who is a true Irishman,

Because he loved Eireann and fought in her cause,

And prove to the Party and prove to the world,

That Ireland is sick of her English-made laws.[1]

(Sinn Féin election song)

The Changing of the Guard

It was not the first time that the death of John Phillips had been reported, having been erroneously done so twice before the 2nd April 1917, when the long-standing Member of Parliament (MP) for South Longford, who had been in poor health for some time, breathed his last at the age of seventy-seven. It was the end of an era in more ways than one.

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Longford Leader, 7th April 1917

“During his long career he was one of the staunchest Nationalists in Co. Longford, and in his earlier days he was one of the most vigorous,” reported the Longford Leader. Phillips had been a leading Fenian in the county before choosing, like so many of his revolutionary colleagues, to throw his support behind the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), under the leadership of Charles Stewart Parnell, as a constitutional alternative when the physical force methods of the Fenians appeared to be going nowhere.

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Charles Parnell

During the Parnell Split of 1890, Phillips remained loyal to his leader. It was a choice that placed him in the political minority, a characteristic decision, considering how, throughout the years, Phillips proved willing to put himself at odds with others, as alluded to gently in his obituary:

At times he might have differed from some of the local national leaders, yet there was never at any time one who was not prepared to acknowledge the honest and well meaning intentions of Mr Phillips.

The voters evidently agreed as they elected Phillips, first to the Chairmanship of Longford County Council in 1902, and then as their MP in 1907, a role he held until his demise. It had been an eventful life and a worthy career, but power abhors a vacuum and the question now was who would replace him.

And a fraught question it was, for the upcoming by-election would take place in a very different environment to when Phillips entered the political stage. For one, the electoral franchise had been expanded, ensuring that it now “embraces all classes in the community, and from the highest to the lowest, every man on the voters list will be entitled to cast his vote for the man of his choice.”

This was a heady responsibility indeed and, deeming itself duty-bound to offer a few words of advice, the Longford Leader urged for a spirit of inclusivity:

Let every man whoever he may be, be heard at the coming election with respect and without any stifling of free speech. Let the electors be given an opportunity of hearing to the full the pros and cons of the different arguments put forth by each side…If the electors follow these lines we are quite confident that the election will not be a curse but a blessing to this part of Ireland.[2]

Noble words, but confidence was one thing the newspaper and its political patrons in the Irish Party were lacking. Times had changed and, more than that, the electoral franchise had shifted with it, as the once-almighty IPP found itself under threat from a new and hungry challenger.

“It is announced in Longford that Mr. John MacNeill, who is at present in penal servitude, will be put forward as Sinn Fein candidate for the vacancy,” read the Irish Times, printing in italics the name the IPP least wanted to hear.[3]

‘An Issue Clear and Unequivocal’

None were more conscious of the looming threat to the Irish Party’s hegemony – and, indeed, its survival – than its Chairman.

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John Redmond

“The remarkable and unexpected result of the election in North Roscommon has created a situation in which I feel it my duty to address you in a spirit of grave seriousness and of complete candour,” John Redmond wrote on the 21st February 1917 in what was intended as a letter to the press, to be read by the Party faithful, still reeling from the shocking defeat eighteen days ago on the 3rd February, when Count George Plunkett scored a victory at the aforementioned by-election.[4]

And a crushing victory it was, with the dark horse candidate trouncing his IPP opponent by 3,022 votes to 1,708, more than twice as much. As if to rub salt into the wound, Plunkett had promptly declared his intent to abstain from taking his seat in Westminster, an antithesis to the strategy the Irish Party had long pursued towards its Home Rule goal since Parnell. This announcement of the Count’s had come as a surprise to many in his constituency, as their new MP had said little during his campaign, having not even been present in Roscommon until two days before polling.

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Anti-IPP cartoon, in the wake of its Roscommon defeat, from the Roscommon Herald, 10th February 1917

He had been in England for the most part, exiled there by the British authorities on suspicion of his role in the Easter Rising, ten months ago. Such punishment had been mild compared to that of his son’s, Joseph Plunkett, executed by firing squad, and it was seemingly as much due to empathy for a father’s loss as anything political that the Count succeeded like he did.[5]

Which raised a question Redmond felt compelled to ask.

“If the North Roscommon election may be regarded as a freak election, due to a wave of emotion or sympathy or momentary passion,” he wrote, “then it may be disregarded, and the Irish people can repair the damage it has already done to the Home Rule movement. If, however –” and it was a big ‘if’ – “it is an indication of a change of principle and policy on the part of a considerable mass of the Irish people, then an issue clear and unequivocal, supreme and vital, has been raised.”

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Anti-IPP cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 10th February 1917

On the Defence

What followed in the letter was a brief rumination on recent history, from the start of the Home Rule movement in 1873 to its recent acceptance by Westminster in 1914. With the promised gains of a self-governing Ireland, free from the diktats of Dublin Castle:

It is nonsense to speak of such an Act as this as worthless. Its enactment by a large majority of British representatives has been the crowning triumph of forty years of patient labour.

True, Home Rule hung in suspension, not yet in effect, but only, Redmond assured his readers, until the end of the current war in Europe. And yes, there remained the ‘Ulster question’, with truculent Unionists threatening partition, but Redmond was confident that this would be “quite capable of solution without either coercion or exclusion.”

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Anti-Home Rule postcard

What otherwise was the alternative? If physical force methods were to take the place of constitutional ones, and withdrawal from Westminster adopted in support of complete separation, the consequences would be:

Apart from inevitable anarchy in Ireland itself, not merely the hopeless alienation of every friend of Ireland in every British party, but leaving the settlement of every Irish question…in the hands of Irish Unionist members in the Imperial Parliament.

Whether the electorate cared about such details, however, was yet to be answered. Redmond was honest enough to admit the central weakness of his party, namely that it had been around for so long, with the resulting “monotony of being served for 20, 25, 30, 35 or 40 years by the same men in Parliament.”

If so, Redmond was prepared to make capitulation into a point of principle, as he closed his letter with the following proclamation: “Let the Irish people replace us, by all means, by other and, I hope, better men, if they so choose.”[6]

It was probably because of this depressing note on which it ended, reminiscent of a disgraced Roman about to enter a warm bath and open his veins, that three of Redmond’s colleagues – John Dillon, Joe Devlin and T.P. O’Connor – met to dissuade their leader from publishing the missive. Redmond could wallow in all the gloom and doom he liked, but the Irish Party was not yet done and its adherents, as was to be shown in South Longford, remained ready to slug it out to the bitter end with the Sinn Féin challenger.[7]

Teething Troubles

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Arthur Griffith

Flush with success following the Roscommon breakthrough, the victors were nonetheless going through their own bout of second-guessing each other. As president, Arthur Griffith, had summoned the Sinn Féin Executive, co-opting a few more members, but “no one seemed to know what to do,” recalled Michael Lennon, one of the new Executive inductees. “Sinn Féin had three or four hundred pounds in the bank but organisation there was none.” Instead, “things political were somewhat chaotic just now.”

Compounding problems was the same man who had achieved their first victory. While Plunkett was happy to use the Sinn Féin name for his Roscommon campaign, he evidently did not consider himself beholden to the party, as he was soon busy setting up a network of his own, as Lennon described:

Count Plunkett and his friends were organising a Liberty League with Liberty Clubs, but this was being done without any reference to Sinn Féin or to Mr. Griffith, then probably the best-known man out of gaol.

Griffith had the brand recognition but not the political muscle, nor did his powerbase: “It is now abundantly clear that at this stage the founder of the Sinn Féin movement had a large but scattered following.”

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Arthur Griffith’s treatise for Irish indepedence

Worse, the ardent republicans who were flocking to the Sinn Féin banner had little time for the Sinn Féin president. His proposed model for Irish self-rule, a ‘dual-monarchy’ akin to the Austria-Hungarian one, married to a return of the 1782 Constitution between Westminster and Ireland, ensued that he was seen as only another compromiser in their eyes, and they did not bother hiding how they regarded:

…Mr. Griffith with unconcealed contempt and aversion, referring to him and his friends as the “1782 Hungarians,” a clownish witticism at the expense of a policy which, at least, ensured a practical method of securing Ireland’s recognition as a sovereign state from England.

Even though some time had passed when he put pen to paper, Lennon burned with the injustice of it all.[8]

The Plunkett Convention

Still, the two leaders were able to keep their growing rivalry out of public view – that is, until the 19th April 1917, when delegates from the various Sinn Féin branches throughout the country – accompanied by representatives from the Irish Volunteers, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan and the Labour Party – gathered inside the Mansion House, Dublin. The large clerical presence was also noted, as were, according to the Irish Independent, “many ladies and gentlemen well-known in literary and artistic circles.”[9]

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The Mansion House, Dublin

They had all come in response to an open invitation by Plunkett, who, fittingly enough, presided over the assembly as the Chair. He was soon to make clear just how seriously he took his authority.

“The meeting was like all political meetings of Irishmen,” wrote Lennon witheringly:

In the early stages there were pious utterances about freedom and the martyred dead, all present cheering and standing. Then, after the platitudes had been exchanged, sleeves were tucked up.[10]

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Count Plunkett

Onstage, in full view of the attendees, Count Plunkett locked horns with Griffith. The main point of contention was how and in what shape the new movement was to proceed, with the latter favouring an alliance of like-minded groups under the umbrella-name of Sinn Féin, against the Count’s preference to start anew in the form of his Liberty Clubs.

On the question of abstentionism, Plunkett was adamant – on no account would they send any more Irish representatives to Westminster, a point on which Griffith was apparently less dogmatic, to judge from his silence over it. As the tensions mounted, Griffith took Plunkett aside – and then announced to a shocked audience that the other man had denied him permission to speak.[11] 

“Callous and Disdainful”

Lennon could not but cringe as he remembered how:

There was something of a scene, dozens rushing to the platform and everyone saying that the leaders must unite…The scene was most discouraging, and I think the delegates who had come from the country were rather disappointed at the obvious division among prominent people in Dublin.[12]

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Father Michael O’Flanagan

With the movement teetering on a split barely after its inception, Father Michael O’Flanagan stepped in. The priest had played a leading role in Plunkett’s election in Roscommon, where he had distinguished himself as a speaker and organiser. Such talents had earned him the respect of everyone involved, making him ideally suited to play the role of peacemaker. After a quiet word between him and Griffith, it was agreed that a committee be formed, consisting of supporters of both Griffith’s and Plunkett’s, including delegates from the Labour movement.

With this ‘Mansion House Committee’ serving as a venue for both factions to each have their say, Sinn Féin would continue organising about the country, as did Plunkett’s Liberty Clubs. It was not an ideal solution, more akin to papering over the cracks than filling them in, but it allowed the convention to end in a reasonably dignified manner.

Besides, there was still the common enemy to focus on. Before the convention drew to a close, Griffith read out an extract from a letter by Sir Francis Vane, who had exposed the murder of civilians by British soldiers during Easter Week. Vane met with Redmond in the House of Commons on the 2nd May 1916, before the executions of the Rising leaders took place. Redmond, Vane believed, could have used his influence to save their lives, and yet did not. Instead, his manner, Vane wrote, had been “callous and disdainful.”

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Sir Francis Vane

Griffith let that sink in. “This man,” he said, twisting the knife, “should be smashed.”[13]

The Most Important Thing

Afterwards, Griffith and a few others withdrew to the front drawing-room of 6 Harcourt Street, where Sinn Féin had its offices. Father O’Flanagan was reading out a poem he had written for use at the Longford election when the door was thrown open and a pair of men strode in, one strongly-built, the other frail and sickly. It was Michael Collins and Rory O’Connor, two of the strident young republicans from Count Plunkett’s hard-line faction. As was to be typical of him, Collins took the lead in speaking.

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The Sinn Féin offices at 6 Harcourt Street, Dublin

“I want to know what ticket is this Longford election being fought on,” he demanded as soon as he caught sight of Griffith, seated in the middle of the room. Griffith was unperturbed as he smoked his cigarette, but whatever answer he gave – Lennon could not remember the specifics – only infuriated Collins.

“If you don’t fight the election on the Republican ticket,” he thundered, “you will alienate all the young men.”

Lennon, for one, was taken by surprise:

This was likewise the first time I heard anyone urge the adoption of Republicanism in its open form as part of our political creed. Mr. Griffith remained silent and composed. Mr [Pierce] McCann suddenly intervened by asking: “Isn’t the most important thing to win the election?”

Collins treated this as the foulest of heresies. The Roscommon election had been conducted under the Republican flag, he railed, and so the same must be done in Longford. Having played the diplomat before, Father O’Flanagan tried again:

He said that although the tricolour was used at Roscommon, the idea of an independent Republic was not emphasised to the electors, and that the people had voted rather for the father of a son who had been executed.

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Michael Collins

With neither side giving away, the argument cooled somewhat, enough for Collins, his piece thus said, to withdraw with a wordless O’Connor to a nearby table, where they counted out the donations from the Convention. But the question was not yet settled, with neither Collins nor Plunkett appearing the type to let it drop.

“It was difficult to work in harmony,” Lennon wrote with feeling.[14]

Choosing

Among the many remaining matters to resolve, the most pertinent for Sinn Féin was who was to be its candidate in South Longford – or, indeed, if there was to be one at all. The Irish Times had first announced Eoin MacNeill, the imprisoned Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, but his controversial decision to cancel the 1916 Rising at the last minute, leading to a clash of orders and general confusion, made him too controversial a choice within the revolutionary movement.

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William O’Brien

At a meeting with Count Plunkett, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor and the trade unionist William O’Brien, Griffith proposed J.J. O’Kelly, the writer and editor, better known by his pen-name ‘Sceilg’. South Longford would be a harder nut to crack than North Roscommon, Griffith warned, being an IPP bastion as well as a generous contributor of recruits to the British Army. O’Kelly’s role as editor to the Catholic Bulletin, a journal sympathetic to their cause, should at least be a start in countering these disadvantages.[15]

The others disagreed, preferring that a prisoner from the Rising should be their man, and so they settled on Joe McGuinness, a man otherwise unknown to the public. The decision made, Sinn Féin moved swiftly, and the Irish Times reported on how, less than a week after John Phillips’ death:

At a conference of Sinn Fein representatives in Longford on Saturday [7th April], Mr. Joseph McGuinness, a draper in Dublin, who is now undergoing three years’ imprisonment in connection with last year’s rebellion in Dublin, was selected as their candidate in South Longford.[16]

However, it seemed that the said representatives had neglected to inform McGuinness of his nomination before making it public. A couple of days later, the selection committee was called together again with the news that the inmates in Lewes Prison, England, where McGuinness was housed, had decided that none of them would stand in any election.

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Joe McGuinness

Objections

As O’Brien recalled: “We were very disconcerted at this announcement.” Their grand scheme to dethrone the IPP and revise the game-plan for Irish freedom looked in danger of being stopped in its tracks. In response, the committee sent an emissary over to Lewes to contact McGuinness through the prison chaplain:

Michael Staines was selected for this job and it was subsequently learned that the statement was correct but when our message reached McGuinness the matter was re-discussed and it was decided to leave each prisoner free to accept or reject any invitation he might receive to contest a parliamentary constituency, and so we went ahead with McGuinness as candidate.[17]

Further details on the controversy were provided in later years by Dan MacCarthy, a 1916 participant who had been sent out to Longford to help manage the Sinn Féin campaign, setting up base in the Longford Arms Hotel. Initial impressions were not encouraging – they had no funds and little in the way of organisation but, after forming an election committee of his own, including the candidate’s brother, Frank, and his niece, and hiring a few cars, they were able to drive through the area, setting up further committees of supporters as they did so to help shoulder the workload.

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The Longford Arms Hotel today

In a taste of the ferocity to come, they were attacked in Longford town after returning from a meeting by a crowd consisting mostly of women. There was no love lost between Sinn Féin and the dependents of Irishmen serving abroad in the British Army, or ‘separation women’ as these wives were dubbed, and a member of MacCarthy’s party needed stitches after being struck on the head with a bottle.

Secrets Kept

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Dan MacCarthy

At least Sinn Féin had the advantage of having the one candidate to promote. The Irish Party, on the other hand, wasted precious time vacillating between three prospective names. “I think that this was responsible for our eventual success,” MacCarthy mused.

He was hard at work when Michael Collins and Arthur Griffith arrived unexpectedly to see him, bringing the unwelcome news that a letter had come in from McGuinness, demanding that his name be withdrawn:

Collins and Griffith added that they had not mentioned this to anybody in Dublin and that I was the first to know of it. I said: “What are you going to do?” and they said they were going on with it for the reason that a man in gaol could not know what the position was like outside.

Still, it was not a secret that could be kept forever. MacCarthy, acutely aware of the damage this sort of publicity could do, suggested that they find themselves a printer they could rely on to keep quiet. As they did not know of any in Longford, MacCarthy decided that they should go outside the county, to Roscommon, and meet Jaspar Tully, a local bigwig who owned, among other things, a printing press for his newspaper, the Roscommon Herald.

Tully was not the most obvious of allies, for he had run as the third candidate in the North Roscommon election against Plunkett but, while he was not of Sinn Féin, he loathed the IPP, and that was enough. MacCarthy, Collins and Griffith wrote up a handbill, explaining the Sinn Féin position should McGuinness’ decline become public knowledge, and had 50,000 copies printed in Roscommon in readiness.

MacCarthy’s instinct for who to trust had proved correct:

The secrets of this handbill was well kept by Jaspar Tully and his two printers. Although they worked all night on it and knew precisely what its contents were, they disclosed nothing.

As it turned out, the handbill was not needed. MacCarthy learnt that the Lewes prisoners had had a rethink and, while the majority remained convinced that parliamentary procedure was not for them, a significant minority decided to trust their comrades at liberty – significant enough, in any case, for McGuinness to keep his name on the ballot and allow Sinn Féin to proceed with its campaign. MacCarthy and his colleagues could breathe a sigh of relief.[18]

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Sinn Féin election poster, showing Joe McGuinness

‘A Most Deplorable Tangle’

The Irish Party, meanwhile, were showing themselves to be far less adroit at hiding their disarray. Redmond was suffering from eczema – an apt metaphor for the state of his party – when he received a letter from John Dillon, the MP for East Mayo. Writing on the 12th April, Dillon warned him that “the Longford election is a most deplorable tangle.”

And no wonder, given that they had yet to decide on the most important question: “All our reports go to show that if we could concentrate on one candidate we could beat Sinn Fein by an overwhelming majority.”

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Joseph Mary Flood (in the robes of a barrister)

Instead of one contender to rally behind, the Parliamentary Party was split between three competing ones: Patrick McKenna, Joseph Mary Flood and Hugh Garrahan.

Meanwhile, “the Sinn Feiners are pouring into the constituency and are extremely active, and we of course can do nothing.” For Dillon, the whole mess “most forcibly illustrates the absolute necessity of constructing without delay some more effective machinery for selecting Party candidates.”[19]

Which was an extraordinary statement. Dillon was speaking as if he and his Chairman were complete greenhorns entering politics for the first time. The Longford Leader bemoaned the “lassitude and indifference which has led to the decline of the Irish National Organization” in the county. Had the IPP adherents listened to the advice of J.P. Farrell, the MP for North Longford – not to mention the newspaper’s proprietor – and held a national convention to settle the question of the candidacy, it could have:

…defied any ring or caucus or enemy to defeat them. Now they are faced with not one but many different claimants between whom it is impossible to say who will be the successful one.

If the matter was not solved, and soon, the Longford Leader warned, then the election might very well result in a Sinn Féin win. If so:

It will be further evidence for use by our enemies of the destruction of the Constitutional Movement and the substitution of rebellion as the National policy. And yet we do not believe that any sane Irishman, and least of all the South Longford Irishmen, are in favour of such a mad course.[20]

Not that the Irish Party could take such sanity for granted. Acutely aware of the growing peril, its leaders scrambled for a solution. On the 13th April, Dillon wrote to Redmond about a talk he had had with Joe Devlin, their MP for Belfast West: “We discussed your suggestion about getting the three candidates to meet.”

Dillon was also wondered whether it would be worthwhile to send someone to meet the Most Rev. Dr Joseph Hoare, the Bishop of Ardagh, though the lukewarm Church support received so far enraged Dillon. “The blame of defeat of the constitutional cause will lie on to the Bishops and priests who split the Nationalist vote,” he fumed.

A Decision Made

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Patrick McKenna

It says much about the level of lethargy the IPP had sunk to that it was not until the 21st April, more than a week since his last letter, that Dillon could inform Redmond that McKenna, Flood and Garrahan had agreed to stand down and leave the selection process in the Chairman’s hands.[21]

Four days later, Redmond was able to write to Dr Hoare that McKenna had been picked to run as the IPP’s sole candidate. In contrast to Dillon’s choice words about workshy clergy, Redmond took care to thank the Bishop profusely

I need scarcely say how grateful I am to your Lordship for your action in this matter…another added to the many services which you have given to the Irish Cause, and the Party and the Movement will be forever grateful.

The Bishop of Ardagh was similarly appreciative in his own letter the day after: “We will all now obey your ruling, and strive for Mr. McKenna. I hope we shall reverse the decision of Roscommon.”

Conscious of the fragility of both Redmond and the party he led, Dr Hoare added: “I hope you will soon be restored to perfect health, and that your policy and Party will remain, after the Physical Force had been tried and found wanting.”[22]

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Dr Joseph Hoare, Bishop of Ardagh

The Bishop added his public backing to the private support on the 4th May, when he signed McKenna’s papers inside the Longford courthouse. Elsewhere in South Longford that day, at Lanesborough and Ballymahon, some men who were putting up posters for McKenna were pelted with stones and bottles by a crowd and their work torn down.

Tricoloured ‘rebel’ flags could be seen flying from trees, windows and chimneys all over the contested constituency, save for the town of Longford. But even there held no sanctuary for the IPP, as one of its supporters, John Joseph Dempsey, was put in critical condition from a blow to the head, delivered in public on the main street.[23]

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Sinn Féin postcard

Escalation

Despite such incidents, the Irish Times believed that the election so far had been “rather tame.” That changed with the arrival, on the 5th May, of four MPs: John Dillon and Joe Devlin for the IPP, as well as Count Plunkett and Laurence Ginnell on behalf of Sinn Féin, at the same time and at the same station. Rival crowds had gathered to greet their respective champions but, despite some confusion on the platform, the two factions were able to withdraw to their separate hotels in an orderly manner.

This lull did not last long. Later that day, as speeches were being delivered in front of the hotel that served as the IPP headquarters, a pair of motor cars drove towards the audience, the tricolours fluttering from the vehicles marking their occupants as Sinn Féiners. The crowd parted to allow through the first car, possibly out of chivalrous deference to its female passengers, but the second vehicle was mobbed as it tried to follow, with the loss of one of its tricolours, torn away before the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) could intervene and prevent worse.

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Men of the Royal Irish Constabulary

By the next day, the 6th May, the Irish Times had found that:

Longford was crowded with partisans, who seem to have flocked to their separate standards from all parts of Ireland…The flags of the rival parties are displayed at every turn, and incessant party cries become grating to the ear. Nothing is being left undone by either side to further its prospects.

The newspaper judged Sinn Féin to be the superior in terms of organisation, with more speakers at hand than needed and a fleet of motor cars at their disposal. But the IPP appeared to be making some overdue headway, particularly in Longford town, where Dillon and Devlin were due to speak.

A procession of their supporters were preparing to set off for the rally when a line of cars, bedecked with green, orange and white flags, drove into view. As before, a rush was made by the crowd to seize the offending tricolours, and a melee ensued as the passengers fought back. Sticks were wielded and stones thrown, until the RIC again came to the rescue and forced a passage through the press of bodies for the vehicles to motor past.

Order had been restored – until, that is, the IPP procession, en route to hear Dillon and Devlin, again encountered the same Sinn Féin convoy, and another scrum unfolded in the street.[24]

Choices

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Kevin O’Shiel

“The opposition was particularly strong in Longford town,” remembered Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born solicitor and Sinn Féin activist. “Indeed, it was quite dangerous for any of us to go through the streets sporting our colours.” There, and in the other towns of the county, the IPP could finally flex its muscles again, with rallies that “were larger and more enthusiastic than ours, all colourful with Union Jacks and flags.”[25]

At one such event, on the 7th May, Dillon took the stage in the market square of Longford town to make the case for the constitutional movement. The issue was now clear, he said. In North Roscommon, there had been no such clarity. The electors there had voted for Count Plunkett out of sympathy for the hardships the old gentleman had endured by the loss of his son and his own exile. No political case had been made by the Count’s supporters, not even a warning that he would refuse to take his seat at Westminster.

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John Dillon

But now, in contrast, South Longford was faced with a clear choice: to continue the pursuit of Home Rule, and the connection with Great Britain that it entailed, or abandon that in favour of complete separation in the form of an Irish Republic.

The latter policy was nothing novel. Others had previously tried to force it on Parnell, heaping on him the exact same abuse now levelled at Redmond: he was a traitor, he was a sell-out, a tool of British imperialism and so on. Yet, as history showed, the alternative to the slow-but-steady approach produced only disaster:

If the constitutional party were driven from the battle, and the counties were to adopt the program of Sinn Fein and the Republican Party, it could only have one result in the long run – an insurrection far more widespread and bloody than the rising of last year, followed by a long period of helplessness and brutal Orange ascendancy, such as followed 1798 and 1848.

Contrary to what was being said in regards to the Rising, the Irish Party had not been negligent, continued Dillon. There were thirty men now alive thanks to the efforts their MPs had made in saving them from a firing-squad. While sixty others languished in penal servitude, there would have been over three hundred in such a plight, including the prisoners freed from Frongoch five months ago, had it not been for the IPP:

The party did not look for gratitude, nor expect it, for their action in these matters, but solid facts could not be dislodged by lies, no matter how violently their opponents screamed.

Joe Devlin was up next. Echoing his colleague, the MP for Belfast West posed his audience two stark choices: the Constitutional movement or armed rebellion, with no halfway house possible. The former had brought Ireland to the brink of self-rule through bloodless means. Were they to cast that aside in favour of a violent gamble for an impossible end? Ireland had had enough of war, Devlin said. It wanted peace.[26]

Joe Devlin

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Joe Devlin

At least one foe in the crowd was impressed. “Joe was an extremely eloquent speaker with an extraordinary emotional ring in his penetrating tenor voice,” Kevin O’Shiel recalled, “which his sharp Belfast accent accentuated, particularly to southerner ears.”

The Ulsterman was also willing to role his sleeves up in a fight. Reaching into his bag of oratorical tricks, he waved a large green banner, adorned with the national symbol of a harp in gold, declaring:

Here is the good old green flag of Ireland, the flag that many a heroic Irishman died under; the flag of Wolfe Tone, of Robert Emmet, of Thomas Davis; aye, and the flag of the great Charles Stewart Parnell.

As his audience applauded, Devlin moved in for the rhetorical kill:

Look at it, men and women, it has no yellow streak in it, nor no white streak. What was good enough for Emmet, Davis and Parnell is good enough for us. Long may it fly over Ireland![27]

Devlin clearly did not intend to leave the ‘green card’ entirely for the challenger’s use. He and Dillon departed from Longford on the following day, the 8th May, the latter needed for his parliamentary duties in Westminster. He was confident enough to write to Redmond, proclaiming how:

Our visit to Longford was a very great success [emphasis in text]. So far as the town and rural district of Longford goes, we are in full possession. Our organizers are very confident of a good majority.

Nonetheless, he signed off on a jarringly worrisome note: “If in the face of that we are beaten, I do not see how you can hope to hold the Party in existence.” The use of ‘you’ as the pronoun hinted at how Dillon, a consummate politician, was already shifting any future blame on to someone else.[28]

Fighting Flags

Devlin was not the only IPP speaker to distinguish himself with turns of phrase and a willingness to make an issue out of flags. “Rally to the old flag,” the MP for North Longford, J.P. Farrell, urged his listeners. “Ours is the old green flag of Ireland, with the harp without the crown on it. There is no white in our flag, nor no yellow streak.”

Another slingshot of his was: “Don’t be mad enough to swallow this harum scarum, indigestible mess of pottage called Sinn Féin. You will be bound soon after to have a very sick stomach, and jolly well serve you right.”[29]

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J.P. Farell, MP

Another Member of Parliament – Tommy Lundon of East Limerick, O’Shiel thought, though he was not sure by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs – went further when he proclaimed how the tricoloured flags the opposition were so fond of waving had, upon inspection, revealed themselves to have been made in Manchester.

“There’s Sinn Féin principles for you,” he crowed.[30]

The other side, meanwhile, were giving as good as they got. When a number of Irish Party MPs and their supporters arrived in Longford by train, they were met at the station by a crowd of children carrying Union Jacks.

To their excruciating embarrassment, in an election where the definition of Irishness was as much at stake as a parliamentary seat, the newcomers had to march through town accompanied by a host of the worst possible colours to have in Ireland at that time. The culprit was a Sinn Féin partisan who had bought the Union Jacks in bulk and handed them out to whatever children he could find, the young recipients being delighted at the new toy to wave.

“The Sinn Féin election committee was not responsible, but the IPP did not know that and they were very angry,” according to one Sinn Féin canvasser, Laurence Nugent. It was a low trick but Nugent was unsympathetic. “But why should they [be]? It was their emblem. They had deserted all others.”

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Sinn Féin postcard

It was a point Nugent was more than happy to press. When John T. Donovan, the MP for West Wicklow, was on a platform speaking, Nugent called out from the crowd, asking whether Donovan would admit that Redmond had sent him a telegram on the Easter Week of the year before, with orders to call out the National Volunteers to assist the British Army in putting down the Rising.

When a flummoxed Donovan made no reply, not even a denial, there were shouts of ‘Then it’s true’ from the onlookers. Nugent could walk away with the feeling of a job well done.[31]

‘Clean Manhood and Womanhood’

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Laurence Ginnell

The scab of 1916 was further picked at by Laurence Ginnell, the maverick MP for North Westmeath who had thrown himself into the new movement. Speaking at Newtownforbes – an audacious choice of venue, considering that it was McKenna’s hometown – on the same day as Dillon and Devlin, the 8th May, Ginnell repeated the allegation that the IPP representatives had cheered in the House of Commons upon hearing of the executions of Rising rebels.

While not saying anything quite as inflammatory, his partner, Count Plunkett, likewise wrapped himself in the mantle of Easter Week. “I would not be here today,” he told his listeners. “If I thought the people of South Longford had anything of the slave in them. To prove they are not slaves, let them go and vote for the man who faced death for them.”

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Countess Plunkett

Other Sinn Féin speakers there included his wife, Countess Plunkett, and Kathleen Clarke, widow of the 1916 martyr. They returned to Longford town in a convoy of thirty, tricolour-decked cars, cheered at different points along the way – that is, until they reached the main street, where a different sort of welcome had gathered. ‘Separation women’, armed with sticks, rushed the cars, singling out the one with the Count and Countess Plunkett, and Ginnell, on board, while pelting the Sinn Féiners with stones, one of which struck the Countess in the mouth, while their chauffeur was badly beaten.

Throughout South Longford, the RIC found itself frequently called upon to step in and prevent such brawls from escalating. Other notable victims of the violence raging through the constituency were the visiting Chairman of the Roscommon Town Commissioners, and Daniel Garrahan, uncle to one of the original IPP candidates, who was held up in his trap and pony, and assaulted.[32]

“Party fighting for their lives with porter and stones,” Ginnell wrote to his wife in a telegram. But he was undeterred. “Clean manhood and womanhood will prevail.”

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Sinn Féin election poster, depicting McKenna’s ‘separation women’ supporters as drunken and deranged

Ginnell received a telegram of his own from the Sinn Féin election committee, on the 8th May, warning him that an attack had been planned for when he left his accommodation. “In the circumstances we would suggest that it might be best not to leave the hotel this evening.”[33]

Not all encounters were violent. Patrick McCartan, a Sinn Féin canvassers, was able to observe a range of reactions:

Some of them were friendly. Some of them just told you bluntly that they were going to vote for McKenna. I remember a woman who was a staunch supporter of McKenna. Her husband was not in, but she knew McKenna and McKenna was a decent man, and they were going to vote for him and that was all about it.

Nonetheless, McCartan and the woman were able to part on good terms. As they shook hands, he asked her to pray for the freedom of Ireland. “God’s sake!” she exclaimed. “Ye may be right after all!”[34]

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Patrick McCartan

‘A Powerful Hold’

Amidst the noise and turmoil, the loyalties of two distinct demographics could be seen.

At the forefront of pro-McKenna crowds were the ‘separation women’. Their choice of Union Jacks for flags to wave was probably not appreciated by the Irish Party, but there was no doubting the women’s zest. An Australian soldier on leave found himself the centre of attention from a harem of admiring females, one of whom threw her arms around his neck and called: “May God mind and keep you. It’s you who are the real and true men.”[35]

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Children with both tricolours and a Union Jack during the Longford election

On the other side, the young men of the constituency were standing with Sinn Féin, prompting the Irish Times to marvel at how:

The more closely one gets in touch with the situation in South Longford the more one is convinced that Sinn Féin has a powerful hold on the youth of the country. Whether the real import of its doctrine is understood is not clear. Indeed, the youthful mind is not inclined to bother about ascertaining it.

If every Longford youth had a vote, so the Irish Times believed, then Sinn Féin would win without a doubt. The generation divide had even entered family households, where it was reported that sons were refusing to help with farm work, and daughters striking on domestic duties, without first a promise from their fathers to cast a vote for McGuinness.

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Sinn Féin postcard

In some families, however, such bolshiness was not necessary, as Sinn Féin activists skilfully played on the fear of conscription, with warnings that every young man in the country would be called up for the British Army unless their candidate was elected. “This threat seems to be having its desired effect in remote rural districts, where farmers, apprehensive for their sons, will vote for Mr McGuinness.”

Not that the fight was finished. Thankfully for the Irish Party, sniffed the Irish Times, “youthful fervour does not count for much at the polling booths.”

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Sinn Féin activists during the Longford election

Assisted by veteran campaigners, including MPs, the Parliamentary Party was working hard to make up for the slow start and the other side’s zeal, and could already claim the majority of votes in Longford town. The question now was whether this would be enough to offset the rural votes, the bulk of which were earmarked for McGuinness as shown by the number of tricolours festooning the branches of trees.[36]

South Longford was on a knife-edge, poised to tilt either way for McKenna or McGuinness – just the time for a dramatic intervention in the form of not one, but two, letters from the country’s highest spiritual authorities.

Episcopal Intervention

The first was an ecumenical piece, signed by eighteen Catholic bishops and three Protestant prelates. Topping the list of signatures was Cardinal Michael Logue, Primate of All Ireland, with Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin, Primate of Ireland, directly following, in a reflection of their place in the hierarchy of the Irish Catholic Church.

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Cardinal Michael Logue (standing) with other Catholic clergy

“Fellow countrymen,” the letter began:

As there has been no organised effort to elicit the expressions of Irish opinion regarding the dismemberment of our country, and it may be said that the authoritative voice of the Nation has not yet been heard on this question, which is one of supreme importance.

The dismemberment in question meant the proposed Partition of Ulster, specifically the six counties in the North-East corner with prominent Unionist populations, from the rest of Ireland. In the absence of any such organised efforts, the Princes of the Catholic Church and their Protestant allies moved to fill the leadership vacuum:

Our requisition needs no urging. An appeal to the Nationalist conscience on the question of Ireland’s dismemberment should meet with one answer, and one answer alone. To Irishmen of every creed and class and party, the very thought of our country partitioned and torn as a new Poland must be one of heart-rending sorrow. [37]

No reference was made to any particular political group. Yet no reader could have thought it anything but a criticism of the Irish Party, on whose watch in Westminster this Polandification was threatening to happen. Archbishop Walsh went further with a letter of his own, published in conjunction with that of his fellow clergymen:

Dear Sir,

The question may, perhaps, be asked, why a number of us, Irish Bishops, Catholic and Protestant, have thought it worth our while to sign a protest against the partition of Ireland. Has not that miserable policy, condemned as it has been by the unanimous voice of Nationalist Ireland been removed, months ago, from the sphere of practical politics?

Nothing of the kind. Anyone who thinks that partition, whether in its naked deformity, or under the transparent mask of “county opinion,” does not hold a leading place in the practical policies of to-day, is simply living in a fool’s paradise.

As a final sting, Dr Walsh added in a postscript:

I am fairly satisfied that the mischief has already been done, and that the country is practically sold.[38]

Practically sold? Again, no names were cited, but they did not have to be, and the Fourth Estate quickly picked up the cue. “The venerated Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Walsh, has sent out a trumpet call against the treachery that the so-called Irish Party are planning against Ireland,” thundered the Midland Reporter.

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Dr William Walsh, Archbishop of Dublin

Those newspapers allied to John Redmond scrambled to respond, with the Freeman’s Journal taking the time to deny in a lengthy rebuttal the accusation that its patrons had ever thought of being acquiescent to a national carve-up. Which was only further proof of guilt, according to the Northern Whig: “As is evident from the troubled and rather incoherent comments of their official organ, the Redmondite leadership were as ready to partition now as they were last June.”[39]

‘Between Two Devils and the Deep Sea’

While most other news outlets did not venture quite that far, they were still in full agreement: Archbishop Walsh was the hero of the hour, Partition was a dead issue, and so was Home Rule if it fell short of anything but an intact Ireland. If His Grace was the instrument of this reversal, then the Irish Independent had been his mouthpiece in its publication of his letter.

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T.P. O’Connor

The hostility of the newspaper was well-known to the IPP leadership. “Between the Sinn Fein, the anti-exclusionists of Ulster, and the Independent,” complained Dillon in a letter to T.P. O’Connor on the 19th August 1916, “we are between two devils and the deep sea [emphasis in text].”[40]

He and his colleagues might have brooded on the bitter irony of how the spectre of Partition was being used as a rod to beat them with; after all, they had lobbied as best they could in Westminster to prevent such a possibility. “Do settle the Irish question – you are strong enough,” Willie Redmond, brother of John, had urged the Prime Minister in a letter on the 4th March 1917:

Give the Ulster men proportional and full representation and they cannot complain. If there is no settlement there will be nothing but disaster all round for all.[41]

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David Llyod George

But David Lloyd George could not be budged into overriding the Orange veto. “There is nothing I would like better to be the instrument for settling the Irish question,” he told Willie silkily, two days later. “But you know just as well as I do what the difficulty is in settling the Irish question.”[42]

And that was that. Two months later, Nationalist Ireland was closing ranks against its former standard bearer, leaving the Irish Parliamentary Party out in the cold, while its challenger swooped in for the kill. A printing press in Athlone was used to publish the Archbishop’s damning words in pamphlet form, while Sinn Féin activists gleefully bought up every newspaper copy they could find with the letter, some bringing bundles of them from as far as Dublin, ready to be handed out in Longford on the morning of the 9th May – polling day.[43]

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Electoral pamphlet with Archbishop Walsh’s letter, issued by Sinn Féin

Final Judgement

The Irish Party could at least take solace in how it had not been completely deserted by the ecclesiastical powers, as Bishop Hoare entered the Longford Courthouse to cast his vote for McKenna. Cheers greeted His Grace’s arrival, though that might have been deference for a man of the cloth rather than support for his political stance, as there was further acclaim when a man called for applause for Archbishop Walsh.

As the polls closed at 8 pm, spokesmen for Sinn Féin anticipated a win by three hundred votes. More demurely, those for the IPP predicted a small minority for McKenna.[44]

In private, Dan MacCarthy had discussed the probabilities with Griffith. Whether a victory or loss, MacCarthy estimated it would be by a margin of twenty votes. Either way, it was going to be close.[45]

35265481_1292738137523017_4673116579179790336_nOn the 10th May, MacCarthy watched as the ballots were collected inside the Courthouse to be counted by the Sub-Sheriff’s men. The one assigned to McKenna’s papers started by separating them into bundles of fifties but, when that seemed inadequate to the sheer volume before him, he switched to the system the McGuinness counter was using and piled them by their hundreds.

The high turnout was testament to the passions the election had inspired in South Longford. The hundred-strong batches of ballot papers for each candidate were piled criss-crossing each other, allowing for the Sub-Sheriff to make reasonable progress in counting. But not quickly enough for the IPP representative, who passed a slip of paper through the window before the Sub-Sheriff could declare his findings.

The paper read: McKenna has won.[46]

Kevin O’Shiel was among the crowds outside. When the Sinn Féin supporters saw the note:

We were dumbfounded, our misery being aggravated by the wild roars of the triumphant Partyites and their wilder “Separation Allowance” women who danced with joy as they waved Union Jacks and green flags.

O’Shiel was in particular dismay. After all, having bet ten pounds – a hefty amount back then – on McGuinness succeeding, he now looked to be leaving Longford a good deal poorer than when he had entered.[47]

Lost and Found

Inside the Courthouse, however, one of the Sinn Féin tallymen, Joe McGrath, was protesting that the count did not match the total poll. Seeing a glimmer of hope, MacCarthy demanded that the process be gone through again.[48]

Among those present was Charles Wyse-Power, a solicitor who had come to Longford on behalf of Sinn Féin in case the IPP tried declaring McGuinness’ candidacy invalid on the grounds of him being a convicted felon. Seeing their supporters, including Griffith, standing mournfully outside on the other side of the street, McGrath urged Wyse-Power to go and announce the decision for a recount, as much to reassure their side as anything.[49]

Wyse-Power did so. Calling for silence, he announced that a bundle of the votes had been overlooked and, as such, a recount was in order. Seeing that he might not be soon short a tenner after all, O’Shiel could only hope for the best:

A drowning man hangs on to a straw, they say, and we certainly (myself in particular) held with desperation on to the straw Charles had flung us.[50]

As it turned out, as MacCarthy described:

The mistake was then discovered that one of the bundles originally counting as 100 votes contained 150. Having discovered this, it tallied with the total poll, giving McGuinness a majority of 37.[51]

Frank McGuinness, standing in for his imprisoned brother, unfurled a tricolour from a window of the courthouse, shouting out that Ireland’s flag had won, to the cheers of his supporters and some flag-waving of their own. For all the jubilations, it had been a painfully close call. “I don’t think that McGuinness would have won that election had it not been for the letter of Archbishop Walsh,” said a relieved O’Shiel.[52]

MacCarthy was not so sure. The letter had come too late in the election to change anyone’s minds, he believed, which would already been made up by the time Sinn Féin workers were pushing printed copies of the Archbishop’s words into people’s hands on polling day. In his opinion, the delay of the IPP in selecting a sole candidate had been its losing factor.[53]

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Sinn Féin poster on a carriage, 1918

On that, he and the Longford Leader were in agreement. For even after McKenna had been chosen over Flood and Garrahan, the newspaper bemoaned:

The selected Nationalist Candidate had a great deal of uphill work to face, even while the other two candidates had withdrawn. As against the Party candidate the Sinn Feiner had a whole fortnight in which to over run the constituency and they did so in great style.

It was a moxie that even an avowed enemy like the Longford Leader was forced to admire:

For two consecutive Sundays they had the ear of the people at all the masses in all the chapels, and no one who knows how hard it is to get an Irishman to change his view once he has made his mind up but must admit that this was a serious handicap.[54]

But perhaps the explanation is as simple as the one offered by Joseph Good, a Sinn Féin activist: “This victory can be attributed to Joe McGrath’s genius for mathematics.”[55]

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Joe McGrath (far left), seated next to Michael Collins

‘A Confusion of Factions’

Up, Longford, and strike a blow for the land unconquered still,

Your fathers fought their ruthless foe on many a plain and hill.

Their blood runs red in your Irish veins,

You are the sons of Granuaile.

So show your pride in the men who died,

And vote for the man in gaol.[56]

(Sinn Féin election song, South Longford, 1917)

Regardless of the whys and whats, a win was a win. The RIC on standby were drawing up between the two groups of partisans to prevent a repeat of the violence but that proved unnecessary. When McGuinness proposed a vote of thanks for the Sub-Sheriff and his team, the request was seconded by McKenna, who took his defeat with good grace, saying that, sink or swim, he would stand with his old party and old flag. That his defeat had been so close, he said, showed that the fire lit in North Roscommon had dwindled already to a mere flicker.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 12th May 1917

The Sinn Féiners, naturally, did not see things that way. The man of the moment, McGuinness, was absent, as much a guest of His Majesty in Lewes as ever, but others were there to inform the tricolour-bearing crowd, after they had returned to the Sinn Féin campaign headquarters in town, what that day’s result meant.

For Griffith, this had been the greatest victory ever won for Ireland at the polls, and in the teeth of stern opposition at that. Cynics had scoffed that Sinn Féin won North Roscommon only by concealing its aims – well, there could be doubting what such aims were now, Griffith declared.

Count Plunkett predicted that this was but the beginning, with more elections to follow that would sweep the IPP away. Privately, he and Griffith continued to loathe each other, and their struggle for the soul of Sinn Fein had not yet ended but, in the warm afterglow of success, they could put aside mutual acrimony – for now.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 21st May 1917

Elsewhere in the country, the results were nervously anticipated. When a placard was shown from a window of the Sinn Féin offices in Westmoreland Street, Dublin, the audience that had gathered there broke into applause. More crowds greeted the returning Sinn Féin contingents at Broadstone Station with waved tricolours, which were promptly seized by killjoy policemen, who dispersed the procession before it could begin.

Not to be deterred, a flag with the letters ‘I.R.’, as in ‘Irish Republic’, was flown above the hall of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in North Frederick Street. If Sinn Féin had shied away from running on an explicitly Republican policy, at least for now, then there were some who knew exactly what they wanted.

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 28th May 1917

“Up McGuinness!” cried a party of students as they paraded through Cork, waving tricolours, while a counter-demonstration of ‘separation women’ dogged them, singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, in between cheers for the Munster Fusiliers and other Irish regiments their menfolk were serving in.[57]

In Lewes Prison, whatever doubts the captive Irishmen had had about the value of contesting elections were forgotten as their excitement at the news almost brimmed over into a riot. McGuinness was hoisted onto a table in a prison hall to make a speech, the building ringing with the accompanying cheers. It was only with difficulty that the wardens were able to put their charges back in their cells.[58]

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Anti-Redmond cartoon from the Roscommon Herald, 5th June 1917

More muted was the reaction in Belfast, where the chief interest among Unionists was the impact the result would have on the Home Rule proposals, due to be submitted to Westminster in the following week. The odds of such a measure succeeding now looked as shaky as the IPP itself. If Archbishop Walsh’s intervention had hardened Nationalist Ireland against Partition, it equally made Protestant Ulster even more sure not to be beneath any new parliament in Dublin.

Indeed, Ireland looked more uncertain a place than ever. “The country is a confusion of factions,” read the Daily Telegraph. “A unanimous Nationalist demand, which could be faced, and which could be dealt with through an accredited leadership, no longer exists.” The old order may have been as dead as O’Leary in the grave, but what would come next had yet to be seen.[59]

See also: An Idolatry of Candidates: Count Plunkett and the North Roscommon By-Election of 1917

References

[1] Doherty, Bryan (BMH / WS 1292), p. 5

[2] Longford Leader, 07/04/1917

[3] Irish Times, 04/04/1917

[4] Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 274

[5] Roscommon Herald, 10/02/1017

[6] Meleady, pp. 275-6

[7] Ibid, p. 274

[8] Lennon, Michael, ‘Looking Backward. Glimpses into Later History’, J.J. O’Connell Papers, National Library of Ireland (NLI) MS 22,117(1)

[9] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[10] Lennon

[11] Freeman’s Journal, 20/04/1917

[12] Lennon

[13] Irish Independent, 20/04/1917

[14] Lennon

[15] O’Brien, William (BMH / WS 1766), pp. 105-6

[16] Irish Times, 10/04/1917

[17] O’Brien, pp. 106-7

[18] MacCarthy, Dan (BMH / WS 722), pp. 12-4

[19] Meleady, p. 277

[20] Longford Leader, 14/04/1917

[21] Meleady, p. 277

[22] Ibid, p. 278

[23] Irish Times, 05/05/1917

[24] Ibid, 07/05/1917

[25] O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770, Part 5), pp. 40-1

[26] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[27] O’Shiel, p. 41

[28] Meleady, p. 278

[29] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[30] O’Shiel, pp. 41-2

[31] Nugent, Laurence (BMH / WS 907), pp. 98-9

[32] Irish Independent, 07/05/1917

[33] Ginnell, Alice (BMH / WS 982), p. 17

[34] McCartan, Patrick (BMH / WS 766), pp. 63-4

[35] Irish Times, 07/05/1917

[36] Ibid, 08/05/1917

[37] Irish Independent, 08/05/1917

[38] Ibid, 09/05/1917

[39] Ibid, 10/05/1917

[40] Meleady, p. 267

[41] Ibid, p. 271

[42] Ibid, pp. 271-2

[43] McCormack, Michael (BMH / WS 1503), p. 9 ; Nugent, p. 100

[44] Irish Times, 09/05/1917

[45] MacCarthy, p. 14

[46] Ibid, p. 15

[47] O’Shiel, pp. 42-3

[48] MacCarthy, p. 15

[49] Wyse-Power, Charles (BMH / WS 420), p. 14

[50] O’Shiel, p. 43

[51] MacCarthy, p. 15

[52] Irish Times, 11/10/1917 ‘ O’Shiel, p. 44

[53] MacCarthy, pp. 13-4

[54] Longford Leader, 12/05/1917

[55] Good, Joseph (BMH / WS 388), p. 31

[56] Doherty, p. 5

[57] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

[58] Shouldice, John (BMH / WS 679), p. 13

[59] Irish Times, 11/10/1917

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Longford Leader

Roscommon Herald

Book

Meleady, Dermot (ed.) John Redmond: Selected Letters and Memoranda, 1880-1918 (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Doherty, Bryan, WS 1292

Ginnell, Alice, WS 982

Good, Joseph, WS 388

MacCarthy, Dan, WS 722

McCartan, Patrick, WS 766

McCormack, Michal, WS 1503

Nugent, Laurence, WS 907

O’Brien, William, WS 1766

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770

Shouldice, John, WS 679

Wyse-Power, Charles, WS 420

National Library of Ireland Collection

J.J. O’Connell Papers

 

Rebel Thinker: Liam Mellows and the Philosophy of Resistance, 1922 (Part VIII)

A continuation of: Rebel Schismatic: Liam Mellows on the Brink of Conflict, 1922 (Part VII)

The War Begins

Padraig_OConnor
Padraig O’Connor

In the early hours of the 28th June 1922, as he readied the men of his battalion inside Portebello Barracks for the assault on the Four Courts – the main part of which would fall to his men – Commandant Padraig O’Connor was in a pessimistic mood. He went so far as to make a wager with his second-in-command that not only would they fail, but the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State, in whose service they were about to risk their lives, would lose the war. O’Connor doubted they would last more than a few days.

The reasons, as he explained to the other man, were obvious:

We numbered 800 all ranks, the second Eastern division was 500, with 200 from Kilkenny and it was reckoned we would have 1000 men available in Dublin. To oppose this force the Irregulars had in Dublin an estimated force of 3000 men, and there was in the country a force of 20,000 to 30,000 Irregulars.

Furthermore, O’Connor thought it implausible that the anti-Treaty leadership would be stupid enough to allow themselves to be boxed in the Four Courts. In addition to the garrison there, several other units of the Dublin IRA (Irish Republican Army) who opposed the Treaty were positioned about the city and would surely challenge them every step of the way. Nonetheless, O’Connor pushed aside such doubts when the time came at midnight to move out.

Free Staters
Free State soldiers

Urban combat was nothing new to him. An experienced soldier, O’Connor had cut his martial teeth against the British during the War of Independence, learning as he did so the value of caution. He accordingly moved his battalion in a piecemeal manner, allowing time to pass before the next unit advanced. Any ambush on the way would not find his charges bunched up as targets.

And yet, as the soldiers advanced through the dark, deserted streets, the resistance O’Connor was anticipating to find never materialised. There was a spark of alarm when a shot went off in Clanbrassil Street but that turned out to be an accident by one of his men. Contrary to his fears, the way to the Four Courts had been left entirely open to them.

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Four Courts, Dublin

Coming Right in the End

Still, O’Connor would not be claiming that wager just yet. His battalion continued over the Liffey to Smithfield, west of the Four Courts, while the other units allocated to the operation took up their own assigned posts, until the target was surrounded. In the Four Courts Hotel, sitting westwards of its namesake, Commandant Paddy Daly would direct the proceedings.

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Paddy Daly (front), with other Free State soldiers

O’Connor could see that the Free State soldiers in the match factory opposite the Four Courts’ record office had been able to barricade their windows unmolested, with the Anti-Treatyites facing them doing nothing to interfere. But, if the enemy had been bizarrely complacent before, that stopped when the boom of an artillery gun signalled the start of the attack.

Almost as if waiting for such a provocation, the Four Courts garrison unleashed a storm of their own, to O’Connor’s horror:

The echo of the 18 Pounder had scarcely died away when every weapon at their command was discharged in to the factory windows. The fire was so heavy the flash of fire lit up the room almost as brilliantly as the street light before it splintered into a thousand fragments in the first few seconds. The intense fire punctured the tanks on the roof and deluged the room.

Seeing that they had been temporarily outgunned, O’Connor called on his men to withdraw to a more sheltered area of the factory.

Despite this small victory, the garrison could do little but stay pinned in place while the Free State ordnance pounded away. The barricades in the Four Courts’ windows were methodically dismantled by a Lewis machine-gun that tore into the lower tier of sandbags until they collapsed, taking the ones on top with them.[1]

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Free State soldiers attacking the Four Courts

When the rotunda was struck, those beneath its dome felt themselves stretched up to their full length by the shockwave before coming back down again, along with the debris that showered them. When one asked Liam Mellows how long the war was going to last, he had no easy answer to give. “It will last a long time.”

“Will it last five years?” the other ventured.

“Oh, no, it will last much more than that,” Mellows said. “But they’ll come right in the end.”[2]

Die Hard Chiefs

When an 18-Pounder of theirs blew through the records office wall, it was decided among the Free State command that the time had come to storm the building. First, though, an attempt at a negotiated surrender was made.

As O’Connor recalled:

It was a most unusual ceasefire; the bugler sounded the call outside the Brigade command post, the Four Courts Hotel and each bugler took up the call until bugle calls were being sounded all around the area. The silence that followed was unbroken and one found that one instinctively lowered his voice to a whisper when speaking.

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Seán MacBride

The anti-Treaty IRA leadership, or the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ as O’Connor dubbed them, were willing to listen but no more than that. Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Joe McKelvey and Seán MacBride stood at the gates of the Four Courts as their Free State counterparts conveyed the terms. As these were for unconditional surrender, they were instantly rejected. With nothing else to say, the two sides proceeded to pass the rest of the parley with idle chit-chat.

“When are you coming in with us, Paddy?” Mellows asked Paddy Daly.

“Tomorrow, with the bayonets,” replied a tactless Daly, chilling the previously amiable mood.

“Call yourself an Irishman,” MacBride snapped.

joe-mckelvey
Joe McKelvey

“I don’t know, but I did not have to write letters to the papers to prove I was,” Daly retorted, referring to the French-reared MacBride’s public assertion of his Irishness. McKelvey had to take an enraged MacBride by the arm and practically pull him away.

“Good night, Paddy,” Mellows said to Padraig O’Connor.

“Good night, Liam.”

And that was that. The men returned to their respective posts and the buglers called again, this time to announce the resumption of the barrage. “The din was awful for a while and then it steadied down to an occasional shot,” O’Connor wrote in his memoirs. He was finding that one could get used to just about anything.[3]

A Purity of Purpose

As the days stretched from the 28th June to the 30th, it occurred to the men inside the Four Courts that the new Dáil, elected by the general election earlier in the month, was due to meet. When Ernie O’Malley asked if there were any TDs among them, Peadar O’Donnell mentioned Mellows and wondered if he would give them to a speech to mark the occasion.[4]

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Liam Mellows

In this, O’Donnell was wrong, as Mellows had failed to be re-elected. At the time, it had been regarded by some as a particularly shocking rejection on the part of an ungrateful electorate. “Deputies who had served the nation with unquestioning fidelity and purity of purpose are excluded from the Government of the Republic which they helped to create and defend,” lamented Poblacht Na h-Eireann, the mouthpiece of the anti-Treaty cause. “We need mention no other name than that of Liam Mellows to show how far the nation has departed from the spirit of the last four years.”[5]

There were, in any case, more immediate matters for the Four Courts’ defenders to be concerned about. The munitions block had been on fire for some time, the crackling flames creeping down from the roof to the lower storeys. Afraid that the ammunition might detonate at any moment, the defenders hastily withdrew into the rest of the complex, taking some solace in that the fire would serve to keep the enemy at bay as well.

O’Malley was waiting in the yard, by the front entrance, while eyeing a nearby Lancia lorry as a potential target, when he was thrown against the iron bars of the gate by the force of an explosion. The fire had reached the munitions as feared. Fragments of stone and wood and scraps of paper came down in a charred hail, while a thick column of smoke rose from where the munitions block had been.

Bullets began ringing off the bars O’Malley was sheltering behind, accompanied by the smaller percussions of grenades being hurled against the walls or into the yard. O’Malley wisely chose to dash back inside the building.

Four Courts
Front of the Four Courts in more peaceful times

The interior was in a scarcely better condition, its corridors and rooms littered with broken masonry and smouldering records, but it afforded some protection for now. When O’Malley found Rory O’Connor and Joe McKelvey in conversation, O’Connor called him over and said that the time had come to surrender. What ammunition that had not just gone up in smoke was in short supply, escape through the flooded sewers was impossible and whatever help there was outside did not seem in any hurry to arrive.

These were not facts O’Malley could deny. But that did not make them any easier to accept. He asked Mellows, who was peering at them through a shell-blown hole in the wall, what he thought.

“The Republic is being attacked here,” Mellows replied. “We must stand or fall by it. If we surrender now, we have deserted it.”

‘The Wilderness of the Treaty’

In this, he and O’Malley were in full accord. McKelvey, O’Connor and some of the other Headquarters staff were not so sure. Neither was Father Albert Bibby, a Franciscan monk who had come to grant them absolution. Nobody had any idea at the time about how pointed a weapon the power to bestow – or deny – this blessing would become.

bibby_crop_1
Father Albert Bibby

With his brown robes and sandaled feet, Father Albert struck an incongruously medieval figure amidst the sound and fury of modern warfare. He preached to them the example of Patrick Pearse who had surrendered to save lives, but entreaties fell on the deaf ears of Mellows and O’Malley.

When O’Connor and McKelvey tried raising the subject once more, Mellows was adamant: “I’ve already told you what I thought, and still think.”[6]

img_8599.2-fr.-tom-fahy
Father Fahy

It was the Easter Week of 1916 all over again. Then, Mellows had stood unmoved in an old abandoned country house in Co. Galway while another man of the cloth, Father Thomas Fahy, urged him to see the necessity of surrender. Pearse had already done so in Dublin, and Fahy invoked his name in support of such a step – as Father Bibby would do six years later – but Mellows had remained closed to any argument but his own, even while the certainty of those around him crumbled, and the choice slipped out of his hands.[7]

Better to live to fight another day, so decided the Galway Volunteers, as they voted to disband and return to their homes. Even then, Mellows had preferred to go on the run than submit – but that was not an option in the Four Courts, encircled as it was by Free State guns. O’Malley began to cry as even he bowed to the inevitable, but Mellows merely went along with the rest.[8]

At 3:30 pm on the 30th June, a white flag was waved. Half an hour later, the one hundred and forty men who made up the garrison came out with their hands raised. With barely a word said, the beaten men were lined up against a wall and divided into groups, to be driven off in lorries to Mountjoy Jail.

Despite the relative silence of the proceedings, the battle for the Four Courts finished, not with a whimper but with a bang when, just after 5 pm, the back of the structure was rocked by a massive detonation. The fire had reached the ammunition stocks there and the results could be seen in the column of black smoke rising a hundred feet in the air, and felt in the debris of dust and charred scraps of paper that scattered about the surrounding area.

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The Four Courts explode

This was not yet the end, as a further series of blasts continued within the Four Courts, thwarting the efforts of firemen to save what was left of the historic building and forcing the would-be rescuers back, some with injures from the falling stone and metal fragments. It was not until evening that the nearby inhabitants felt safe enough to venture out on to the pavements.[9]

The drama was done – for now. For, even as he and his comrades were marched away to captivity, Mellows continued to take the long view. “There’s one thing this will do,” he told O’Donnell beside him. “They’ll save the people from wandering about for a guardian in the wilderness of the Treaty.”[10]

four-courts-surrender
Prisoners being led away from the Four Courts

‘Striking and Vapouring’

It was a defiant response to the shame of surrender, and one typical of Mellows: impassioned, implacable and infused with a self-righteousness that left no room for the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he bore some responsibility for the debacle. For the leadership of the IRA Executive, in which Mellows had played a prominent role, had been an unmitigated disaster. Risk evaluation, cause and effect, empathy for an alternative point of view and other concepts with more than one syllable had seemed utterly beyond their grasp.

How a group of otherwise capable men could fail so utterly baffled Padraig O’Connor as he entered the captured yard of the Four Courts, packed as it was with stolen cars. He assumed that such theft had been for the purpose of goading the Provisional Government into making the first move but, as he reviewed the events of the past few days, the less sense they made, for he could discern no clear thought process at all in the actions of the Anti-Treatyites.[11]

After all their defiance, with the seizure of the Four Courts and other buildings throughout the country, the bank raids and rampant thievery:

It must have been apparent that there would have to be a flop of the Government, or a fight. When it came to a fight they were fully aware that the Four Courts were about to be attacked. They did nothing about it…The way down to the Four Courts was left open and they took the attitude “Hit me now with a child in my arms”. They were so close to the problem they could not see the details.[12]

At almost every point, the Anti-Treatyites made their enemies’ work easier for them. Holes had been bored through each floor of the Four Courts – presumably for easier access – and then covered with blankets, so that, when these caught alight, the draught through the gaps guaranteed that the flames would spread throughout the rest of the building.[13]

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The ruins of the Four Courts

O’Connor searched in vain for some kind of explanation of their behaviour, only to run into one logical wall after another. Had the garrison expected the people of Dublin to rise up on their side?

If so, why had they spent so much time on details like the elaborate sandbag barriers outside the Four Courts?

If they were confident of success, why allow themselves to be hemmed into a defensive position?

If they had feared to lose, why did they not use their superior numbers to crush the Pro-Treatyites before they reached the Four Courts?[14]

If, if, if…

O’Connor concluded that such speculation was pointless. He and the anti-Treaty leadership were of just too different mindsets to understand each other. For Mellows, merely resisting was victory enough for the Republic. To O’Connor, all the ‘Die Hard Chiefs’ had accomplished was inflict “as much damage possible without winning, and then went to the Gaols and camps as martyrs in the cause of Kathleen [Ni Houlihan].”

Even defeat and incarceration taught them nothing: “They continued the attitude striking and vapouring which with them passed as pure idealism and maybe it was, of sorts.”[15]

Letters from Mountjoy

220px-liamlynchira
Liam Lynch

Four months later, Liam Lynch was writing as Chief of Staff of the anti-Treaty IRA to O’Malley. Lynch had escaped Dublin on the day the Free State began shelling the Four Courts and so avoided the captivity that had befallen so many of his colleagues on the IRA Executive.

O’Malley was another exception. Despite surrendering with the rest of the Four Courts garrison, he had managed to slip away and rejoin the Anti-Treatyites still at large. Lynch had appointed him as Acting Assistant Chief of Staff, with instructions to set up base in Dublin and continue the war from there, while Lynch directed the overall strategy from Munster.

And there was a lot to direct, not only in Ireland. “Any chance of getting in touch with Mellowes [alternative spelling] for information regarding America which would be helpful to Officers?” he wrote to O’Malley on the 7th September 1922.

Of particular interest were the munitions already purchased there, such as the Thompson machine-guns detained by the American Government and waiting to be delivered. Lynch was aware of Mellows’ previous sojourn in the United States and it was on that basis he was sure he “would be able to give a good deal of information and advice which would be valuable.”[16]

For Mellows was not idle during his confinement in Mountjoy Prison. “Are we in touch with general situation? Well, yes! As far the newspapers allow us to be,” he wrote in response to O’Malley on the 23rd August.

Letters between the two men had been smuggled in and out of Mountjoy, allowing O’Malley to give a general outline of the war, for which Mellows thanked him. He was of like-mind with O’Malley’s opinion on their propaganda: “Agree with you as to poorness. Needs badly to be livened up.” The problem was that their material “seems to me to be too personal.”

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Michael Collins

Otherwise, he kept an upbeat tone: “The F.S. [Free State] seems to be a bit groggy these days.” Although Mellows did not say as much, he was writing a day after the death of Michael Collins, whose loss had knocked some of the stuffing out of Pro-Treatyites. It was enough for the prison governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, to gloomily predict the imminent return of the British.

Which would amount to a victory for Mellows’ and O’Malley’s cause, nullifying as it would the Treaty and possibly reuniting the sundered IRA factions against the common foe. It had been a cherished dream for the anti-Treaty leadership, though Mellows did not allow such happy possibilities to distract him from assisting O’Malley with character references.[17]

180px-james_o27donovan
Seamus O’Donovan

A fellow prisoner, Seamus O’Donovan, had informed Mellows about a large amount of raw material for explosives hidden about Dublin from his time as the IRA Director of Chemicals. Mellows was quick to grasp the possibilities.

“If a good chemist or engineer were available, a lot of stuff could be turned out,” he told O’Malley:

Can you supply such a man for this purpose? Ryan, O/C Engineers, 3rd, has been mentioned, but it is not certain whether he is free or not. A better man would be John J. Tallon who worked for D/C [O’Donovan] at F.[our] C.[ourts] up to the attack. As he lived out, he was not captured.

For further information, Mellows recommended O’Donovan’s sister and supplied her address in Drumcondra. In the meantime: “Keep up the heart old son. Regards from us all. God bless you.”[18]

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Women protesting outside Mountjoy, circa 1922 (for more information, see https://www.rte.ie/archives/2013/0426/385803-maud-gonne-macbride-speaking-in-1949/)

Judging the Situation

Mellows did not limit his advice to details, for there was the bigger picture to consider. “I wish to point out that the matter of establishing a Prov. Republican Govt. has become imperative because of the possibility of the English taking a hand sooner or later,” he wrote on the 29th August.

For Mellows, the current war was as much against the ancestral foe as fellow Irishmen “duped or dazzled by the Free State idea.” The latter enemy, however, were perhaps a greater danger than the other, threatening as they did to outflank the Anti-Treatyites on home ground:

For the British to calumniate Republicans and belittle their cause by besmirching them is one thing; but for F.S. (and supposed potential Repubs.) to do it is another – and different, and worse thing; because the British will not use British arguments to cloak their arguments but Irish ones.

To prevent such muddying of the ideological waters, it was essential to set up the aforementioned Provisional Republican Government, he wrote, “otherwise it becomes a fight (apparently) between individuals” in the public mind, rather than one cause against another, as Mellows preferred to have it seen as.[19]

And it was on the strength of what the Anti-Treatyites could offer the country that they would win or lose – of that, Mellows was sure. Military might alone would be insufficient, and Mellows was prepared to criticise his comrades at liberty for their narrow thinking:

During the past six months we suffered badly because responsible officers, in their desire to act as soldiers, and because of an attitude towards “politicians” acquired as a result (in my opinion) of a campaign directed towards this end by old GHQ, could only judge of situation in terms of guns and men.[20]

In contrast, Mellows wished to use every available resource at hand.

Whether smuggled in, or via a guard with unorthodox reading tastes, a copy of the Workers’ Republic passed to the hands of the Mountjoy residents. The Communist Party, on whose behalf the newspaper spoke, was not, by any measure, particularly influential in Ireland. “A small number of persons in Dublin known as the Communist Party,” was how the Publicity Department of the Free State sneeringly put it.[21]

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Seán McLoughlin

Nonetheless, the Workers’ Republic offered a simple, striking vision, as presented in its edition for the 22nd July 1922. Under the tantalising headline HOW THE REPUBLICANS MAY WIN, Seán McLoughlin – the former ‘boy-commandant’ of the Easter Rising – expounded on how:

The way is clear. Victory lies with the side that can attract to itself the masses, the workers of the towns and cities, and the landless peasants.

The Anti-Treatyites had so far been stymied by their limited objective, and that was “a purely sentimental one as far as the masses are concerned – the establishment of a Republic.” Alone, this was not enough to vanquish the Free State. Neither could the Labour Party by itself. But, together:

The Labour Party, supported by the Communist Party, backing the Republicans and appealing to the people with a proper social programme will be absolutely invincible.

As for the programme in question, it should:

…be based upon the present needs of the masses, comprising confiscation of the land, the big estates and ranches to become the property of landless peasants, social ownership of creameries, etc.; confiscation of all heavy industries, banks, etc.; repudiation of all debts, and the controlling and running of industry; land and housing to be in the hands of councils elected by the workers and peasants.[22]

This provided enough of an inspiration, or at least a starting-point, for Mellows’ own sermon, written over the course of three letters, on the 26th and 29th August and the 9th September 1922. In what is known collectively today as Notes From Mountjoy, he spelled out an ambitious set of policies to cut the authority out from underneath the Free State while winning the hearts and minds of the masses.

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Gerry Adams

It was on these texts that Mellows’ reputation as a pulpiter of Republican Socialism rests, earning him the admiration of other notable figures, from Peadar O’Donnell – who would become a writer and activist of some note himself – to Gerry Adams, who described Notes as being “as relevant today as they were when first written.”[23]

Apostle of the Creed

As a fellow resident of Mountjoy, O’Donnell was able to converse at length with Mellows, often while scrubbing the floors together or some other work duty. These talks made a deep impression on O’Donnell, who celebrated Mellows in his memoirs as “the greatest apostle of the creed of [Wolfe] Tone in our day.”

O’Donnell may have served as Mellows’ own St Paul, as historian Diarmaid Ferriter puts it: “O’Donnell was determined to propagate Mellows’s memory despite the scant body of material left behind.”[24]

Scant, maybe, but Notes was at least an attempt at providing the Anti-Treatyites with a political policy, something they otherwise lacked besides simple repudiation of the Treaty.

Much of the content was unremarkable in itself, filled with the expected denunciations of the Free State, along with detailed musings on the sort of propaganda best to deploy. But it was the social dimensions that Mellows expounded on that elevated his work above the usual Civil War polemic, as well as earning a chariness from Official Ireland in the years to come.

While reprinting the Notes in 1965, the Irish Communist Group ruefully noted how difficult the work had been to find, let alone read:

One can see the Blue Paper in the National Library in Dublin if one meets a co-operative librarian who knows where it is kept. It is not catalogued. Over the past forty years there have been mysterious references to the Notes in Irish left wing circles, but these have only been published once (in the 1950s by the “Liam Mellows” branch of the Labour Party in Dublin).[25]

It had not always been obscured. Indeed, the Free State was only too happy to publish Mellows’ words, via the Irish Independent on the 22nd September 1922, complete with headlines such as COMMUNIST REPUBLIC and DANGER TO CATHOLICISM, in case readers were unsure as to whether or not they were supposed to approve. Mellows may have deplored propaganda of an overly personalised nature but his Red-baiting opponents were not so finicky.[26]

All-focus
Irish Independent, 22nd September 1922

A month later, the Stationery Office of the Free State printed the letters as part of a 24-page pamphlet, Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others. As the title would suggest, Mellows was not even the intended focus. Inside were intercepted letters between de Valera, Lynch, Mellows and other prominent Anti-Treatyites, the reason for their exposure being “to brand the Republicans (including de Valera!) as communists. Unfortunately,” as the Irish Communist Group put it dryly, “they were far from being communists.”[27]

All-focusIndeed, Mellows was more amused than anything at this label. “The effort to brand it ‘Communism’ is so silly,” he wrote in a letter to Seán Etchingham, a fellow Anti-Treatyite, on the 3rd October 1922. Yes, he had quoted a Communist paper as part of his work, but “I only referred to the Worker because it had set forth so succinctly a programme of constructive work that certainly appealed to me.”[28]

Besides, trapped as he was behind the walls of Mountjoy, writing was the only course of action left open to him, lest he burn with impatience. “I wish to God I were out,” he told Etchingham. “Haven’t felt such energy for years.”[29]

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Seán Etchingahm

A Stake in the Country

Motivating Mellows in particular – as he explained in the first of his letters, on the 25th August 1922 – was the conviction that, for the Republicans to win, they had to look beyond themselves and rediscover their radical roots:

We are back to Tone – and it is just as well – relying on that great body, ‘the men of no property’. The ‘stake in the country’ people were never with the Republic. They are not with it now and they will always be against it – until it wins.[30]

Among the pillars of society which had turned against the Republic was the Church, for which Mellows’ pen abandoned its usual analytical tone and almost flew off the page in rage:

Hierarchy’s abandonment of principle, justice and honour by support of Treaty. Danger to Catholicism in Ireland from their bad example – their exaltation of deceit and hypocrisy, their attempt to turn the noble aspect of Irish struggle and to bring it to the level of putrid politics; their admission that religion is something to be preached about from pulpits on Sundays, but never put into practice in the affairs of the Nation.[31]

On a calmer note, if Republicans knew what they were against, then the question remained of what they were for. The Republic, yes, but what did that amount to?

All-focus
Irish Independent, 22nd September 1922

According to Mellows, all they had to do was go back to basics, by way of the Social Programme that the Dáil had adopted in its first meeting, three years ago, in January 1919. Doing so would require no great shift in thinking, assured Mellows, for the Programme was already present on paper, if not yet in practise. The challenge lay in making clear to potential converts among the ‘men of no property’ what was meant by it. Mellows’ suggestion was that:

It be interpreted something like the following, which appeared in the Workers Republic of July 22nd last: ‘Under the Republic all industry will be controlled by the State for the workers’ and farmers’ benefit.” All transport, railways, canals, etc, will be operated by the State – the Republican State – for the benefit of the workers and farmers.[32]

Continuing the line from the Workers’ Republic, banks likewise were to be nationalised, with the lands of aristocrats seized and divided up for others. This would not make any more enemies, for the moneyed classes were already on the side of the Treaty, so who cared about them?

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Thomas Johnson

All of which would suggest the Labour movement as a natural ally. While Mellows criticised Labour for its “unprincipled attitude”, he nonetheless pushed for it to be kept on board. After all, a number of Labour leaders, including Thomas Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal Shannon, had visited the Four Courts earlier in the year and complained of the slackness in the Dáil about implementing the Social Programme:

We should certainly keep Irish Labour for the Republic; it will be possibly the biggest factor on our side. Anything that would prevent Irish Labour becoming Imperialist and respectable will help the Republic.[33]

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Austin Stack

The willingness to court others besides fellow doctrinal Republicans, and his citation of socialist policy from a Communist newspaper, did not make Mellows particularly open-minded, however. No one else seemed worthy of an outreach effort, and even Labour grew stale as a possible auxiliary. Writing to Austin Stack on the 1st September 1922, in the last of his three letters, he washed his hands of Labour, accusing it of having “deserted the people for the flesh-pots of Empire.”

This was while the situation was exceptionally ripe for anyone with a social programme to offer:

Starvation is facing thousands of people…The Free State government’s attitude towards striking postal workers makes clear what its attitude towards workers generally will be. The situation created by all these must be utilised for the Republic.

To help this utilisation, and to break things down to their most basic for even the dimmest reader, Mellows provided Stack with the positions their side should represent:

REPUBLIC – Workers – Labour.

While, on the other hand:

FREE STATE – Capitalism and Industrialism – Empire.[34]

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Irish Independent, 22nd September 1922

‘Fleshpots of Empire’

Such ideas, and the passion in which he argued them, was a new development for Mellows. As an elected representative, he had spoken to the Dáil, first during the Treaty debates at the start of the year – where he had earlier used the phrase ‘flesh-pots of Empire’ – and afterwards as part of the anti-Treaty block. And yet, while arguing passionately for the Republic throughout, he had been silent on what form of society this Republic would take. Social policy in general, let alone any particular ideas, had not featured in any of his speeches.[35]

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James Connolly

This sudden conversion surprised even O’Donnell, who had watched with Mellows from a barricaded upper-story window in the Four Courts as the Free State forces below set up positions to attack. The sight of a pair of civilians, diligently on their way to work amidst the unfolding militancy, prompted O’Donnell and Mellows to speculate on the role of trade unions had James Connolly been alive to guide them.

To O’Donnell:

It was the first time I heard Mellows on the play of social forces in the crisis of the Treaty. I was present at the Dáil Éireann session when he made his speech against the Treaty but while what he said then impressed me greatly it gave no indication of the pattern of ideas he uncovered now.[36]

For all his admiration, O’Donnell was to criticise Mellows for not addressing these issues at any of the three IRA Conventions in mid-1922:

He might not have carried the Convention – and he might – but anyway his views would have been argued over, and the dynamics of struggle, once the Republic was attacked, would have favoured them. His message from jail would then have been understood.[37]

Maybe. Maybe not.

Socialism was very much a minority stance among the IRA. When Todd Andrews met O’Donnell during the Truce of 1921, he was amazed to hear such talk as ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers, small farmers and peasants’ and other class warrior tropes. Never before had Andrews heard this sort of language. Despite some ideological flirtation while in O’Donnell’s company, he instantly put these thoughts aside when the two men parted company.[38]

Changing Policy

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Peadar O’Donnell

Perhaps Mellows was simply ahead of his time. More than a decade later, socialism would receive a far warmer reception at the IRA Convention of March 1933, where the question of whether the Irish Republican Army should fight for social change as well as the Republic took centre stage. While Mellows was not around to advocate, his old friend was happy, as one of the delegates, to act as the Aaron to his Moses.

“Is capitalism for or against us?” O’Donnell asked rhetorically. “We cannot make progress unless we destroy capitalism.”[39]

Against the accusations of Communism, and the assumption that such ideology was incompatible with Republicanism, he cited the example of his long-dead mentor: “Mellows was a great mind. He took the Workers Republic as his guiding line and that is supposed to be a Communist paper.”

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Tom Barry

Opposing him in this line of thinking was Tom Barry, who argued against complicating matters. To him, the reason the Civil War had been lost was because they spent too much time on distractions. “We took social action in 1922/23,” he claimed. “We failed in 1922 because we were dabbling in politics. During the day, officers were politicians – in the evening, they were in charge of Brigades. I want to avoid a repetition of this.”

Just because Mellows had said something did not make it so, Barry argued: “Mellows was not infallible in these important matters. It was simply his opinion. We in 1922 would not accept his suggestions.”[40]

But Barry was in the minority this time, and Mellows in the ascendant from beyond the grave. “Mellows realised that, in 1922, the masses did not understand that we were fighting their fight,” said Seán McCool, a delegate from Donegal. Another attendee spoke of Mellows in the same breath as heroes like Wolfe Tone, Robert Emmet and Patrick Pearse.[41]

At the end, O’Donnell’s motion for a social programme to go hand in hand with the IRA’s military goals was passed, the text giving full credit to its inspiration:

That the Convention believes that the draft programme of Liam Mellows provides a plan for the preparations of the armed insurrection and directs the Army Council to outline the manner in which the Army will co-operate with the Workers and small Farmers in their economic struggle while pressing forward with the greatest energy to put the Army in a position to avail of the situation which is developing.[42]

Even Barry was prepared to go along with this shift in strategy, as he was the one to second the motion. In addition, a copy of Mellows’ original 1922 programme was to be printed in the IRA newspaper, An Phoblacht.[43]

Carried away somewhat with his success, O’Donnell proclaimed that, if there was no armed insurrection within the next two years, those present at the convention would have failed in their task. Not for the first or last time, Republican Socialism was to forget to walk before trying to run.[44]

Patriotism and People

In the years to come, O’Donnell lamented what might have been had Mellows lived: “It is a matter of regret that no fuller statement of his views had been secured while there was yet time.”[45]

The extent in which Mellows actually believed in what he wrote, however, besides as a tool to rally support in a life-and-death struggle, is debatable. After all, he had come to such views, as even O’Donnell acknowledged, rather late in the day.

Had the Civil War never happened, if the Anti-Treatyites won early on, or the Treaty been rejected from the start, would Mellows have been nearly as interested in wealth distribution? He talked of the heavy-handedness the Free State was employing towards striking workers but gave no indication that a Republican government would be any more lenient towards dissent.

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Anti-Treaty IRA men on the streets of Dublin, 1922

Certainly, the behaviour of the IRA Executive left much to be desired. When the Dáil voted to accept the Treaty, the Executive had resisted with the threat of arms, until either the offending agreement was dropped or the country dragged back into war with Britain, whether or not anyone else wanted it.

That other people could hold views different to his was a concept Mellows struggled with. Disagreement was treated as the direst of heresy, and even close colleagues were not immune to his censure. When Lynch – in the lead-up to the Civil War – had dared negotiate with the Pro-Treatyites, Mellows helped banish the Chief of Staff and his supporters from the Four Courts, leaving the Executive adrift in confusion until that fateful day on the 28th June 1922, when the Free State artillery boomed against their diminished defences.

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Kathleen Clarke

Mellows criticised his allies for thinking only in military terms, but he was just as obtuse in his dealings with others. At his worst, he could border on solipsistic. Kathleen Clarke found out the hard way just how little her opinion mattered to Mellows, for all her past work, when she visited him and Oscar Traynor – a Dublin IRA officer – in the Four Courts in mid-1922.

To her inquiry about what the Executive intended to do from there, “they gave me no answer, and adopted an air as if it was no business of mine.” She warned them of the inevitable disaster should they continue with their course of action, to which Traynor mumbled something, while Mellows remained aloofly silent. Hurt and annoyed, Clarke left, surprised in particular “by the attitude of Mellows; he knew very well how closely I had worked with the leaders of 1916.”[46]

While Mellows later expressed interest, in his Notes, about utilizing the masses against the Free State, that did not necessarily equate to concern for them besides as assets to be used. Contempt laced his words as he, looking ahead in the event of a Republican victory, anticipated a need for a rationing programme. He was not so naïve to think that a win alone would bring ease to the country, and many luxuries taken for granted, such as tea, sugar and foreign-made flour, would have to be foresworn in the lean times ahead. People would complain but what of it?

As a matter of fact, Ireland suffered nothing (comparatively speaking) either during the Great War or our war. English people (and English women) cheerfully put up with severe deprivations and we Irish think our Cause worth putting up with anything. But do we? Judging by the whines and grumbles, one is tempted sometimes to say “Certainly not”.[47]

Mellows loved the Republic – but then, abstract entities that require nothing beyond what one chooses to give are easy to put on a pedestal. He loved Ireland – while passing through Slievenamon on the train in August 1920, he remarked, with tears in his eyes: “Is not Ireland a lovely spot, is it not worth fighting for and dying for?”[48]

Whether he would have had much patience for the inhabitants of the country he planned to build, however, with their whines and grumbles, is another question.

A Difference in Outlooks

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Ernie O’Malley

Among Mellows’ converts was O’Malley, who was enthused enough about the proposals coming out of Mountjoy to write to the Chief of Staff about them. “I had a note from the QMG [Quartermaster-General, as in Mellows] in which he states that the programme of democratic control adopted by AN DÁIL coincident with Declaration of Independence January 1919 should be translated into something definite,” he told Lynch on the 3rd September 1922. “I will forward some of his suggestions when I get them typed.”[49]

Lynch, however, did not appear in any great hurry to act on these ideas. “Note the suggestion as to Republican Democratic Programme etc.; the moment I consider has not yet arrived for such action,” he replied to O’Malley nine days later, on the 12th September.

While Lynch assured him that “I will give the matter immediate consideration”, for the moment he preferred Mellows’ more practical considerations: “The QMG is right on the necessity of concentrating on Intelligence and Propaganda, leave nothing undone in these matters.”[50]

The Chief of Staff continued with a relaxed attitude towards Mellows’ proposal that they make the 1919 Social Programme their own, as he wrote to O’Malley on the 17th September: “This step I consider not urgent at the moment, but Executive can consider this matter later.”[51]

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Front page of anti-Treay newspaper

Lynch was at least willing to entertain such policy, as he asked O’Malley in another letter on the same day for a copy of the suggested Programme be sent to him. Also, Mellows was to be kept in the loop regarding political and strategic developments, and his opinions on them requested “from time to time, that is if he can fully judge the situation from inside.”[52]

As the slightly condescending tone would indicate, Lynch was not necessarily appreciative of all Mellows had to offer. “I fear his ideals prevent him from seeing the same Military-outlook as others at times,” Lynch confided in O’Malley a day later, on the 18th September.[53]

The Government of the Republic

Nonetheless, Lynch was willing to go through with one of Mellows’ suggestions: the establishment of a Republican Government. This was done on the second day of the Executive meeting – the first since the Civil War began – in Co. Tipperary, in October 1922, when de Valera was called upon, as the former President of Dáil Éireann:

To form a Government which will preserve the continuity of the Republic. We pledge this Government our whole-hearted support and allegiance while it functions as the Government of the Republic.[54]

With de Valera so empowered, he could select his own Cabinet, with positions for Minister for Home Affairs, Minister of Finance and so on. Word filtered through to Mountjoy that Mellows had been made Minister for Defence, for all the good that did, locked up as he was.

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Éamon de Valera

Nonetheless, it gave his fellow prisoners reason to believe that things were in motion with the situation outside. Mellows, for one, hoped to have fleshed out his newfound ideas into a more coherent policy, ready to engage with the challenges in the country, by the time he was free. For a tunnel was being dug in conjunction with the Anti-Treatyites still at large, who had chosen a house near Mountjoy before setting to work, digging a shaft through the scullery floor, from which to continue on towards the jail.[55]

Meanwhile, the war ground on. Little changed with the formation of the Republican Government – not that there was any reason for a puppet government to make a difference, and a puppet was all it was. Support from the IRA Executive was far from unconditional, however ‘whole-hearted’ it professed to be. Power would remain in the hands of military men like Lynch.

Whether this fell short of Mellows’ aspirations is another question. He had been realistic enough in his writings about the limitation of any such authority for the time being. There was little expectation that this Republican shadow-state was expected to do anything; for Mellows, its role as a counter-measure to the Free State’s so-called Dáil was sufficient, and Lynch had produced at least that much.

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Liam Deasy

As for the economic policies Mellows espoused, nothing was said about them at the Executive meeting nor attempted afterwards. “I know of no alternative policy to present one of fighting we could adopt,” Lynch told Deasy candidly in early September 1922. “At present it is a waste of time to be thinking too much about policy.” Only after the war was over and the Republic established for good would they think about how it was to be run.[56]

Operation Order No. 11

In this, he differed completely from Mellows. But then, Lynch had the power and the other man, while he lingered behind bars, did not. As Robert Brennan had warned Mellows in the Four Courts months previously, it was force that mattered now and nothing else. The rule of the gun was supplanting that of the law, and Mellows was about to discover for himself the grim truth of Brennan’s admonitions.[57]

With the Free State resorting to the shooting of captured Anti-Treatyites, regardless of morals or legalities, Lynch reacted in kind with Operation Order No. 11 on the 30th November 1922. All members of the Free State authorities, whether civilian or military, who had endorsed the execution policy were to be killed on sight.[58]

This fierce new strategy bore the first of its putrid fruit on the 7th December 1922. Seán Hales and Pádraic Ó Máille were leaving the Ormond Hotel for a meeting of the Dáil, in which both men were TDs, and Ó Máille the Deputy Speaker. They were about to drive away in a sidecar when a group of six men stepped forward and opened fire with pistols.

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Seán Hales (left) and Pádraic Ó Máille, just before their shooting

Hales crumpled in his seat, riddled with bullets in the temple, throat, thigh, arm and left lung. On the other side of the carriage, Ó Máille, despite his own wounds in the back and arm, retained enough presence of mind to order the driver to head straight to the nearest hospital, for all the good it did Hales, who died within minutes of arrival.[59]

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Dick Barrett

When the news reached Mountjoy, O’Donnell attempted to commiserate with Dick Barrett, who had known Hales, a fellow Corkman, before the split. Barrett was unsympathetic. “Ah, shag him, why did he join them,” he retorted before storming off, the vehemence catching O’Donnell by surprise.[60]

The Book of Cells

The days inside crawled by, the enforced idleness compelling inmates to improvise on activities. Mellows began a journal, whose title, The Book of Cells, was a pun on the famous Celtic manuscript. Other puns were exchanged between him and O’Donnell, such as one of the former’s: ‘When is a colt not a colt? When it is a forty-five.’

Both men agreed that the humour needed a little work.

At other times, Mellows and O’Donnell competed over satirical pen-pieces of the various Pro-Treatyites for the pages of The Book of Cells. Mellows did one on Eoin MacNeill, so O’Donnell one-upped him with a sketch of Ernest Blythe. When rumours were heard about the Free State’s plans to transport the prisoners to some island, Mellows took this as an inspiration for a short story, ‘Islanditis’, which endeavoured to make the threat seem like more of an exciting adventure.[61]

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Wooden chess-piece, carved by Mellows while in Mountjoy (now in the National Museum of Ireland, https://thecricketbatthatdiedforireland.com/2013/10/12/carved-chessman-liam-mellows-execution-december-1922/)

Other intellectual pursuits of Mellows’ was the setting up of classes and seminars for the prisoners, bereft as they were of any other type of education for the foreseeable future. The topic of one such symposium was ‘Women in Industry – Equal Pay for Equal Work’, which O’Donnell attended on the 7th December, having had a talk of more immediate importance earlier that day with Mellows and Rory O’Connor. The tunnel-in-the-works, their best hope for freedom, had reached to under the exercise yard, O’Donnell learned.

It was only a matter of time.

After the debate on gender equality, O’Donnell strolled about the ground floor of the prison, thinking of nothing in particular, until the wardens ordered their charges back into the cells for the night. First, he stopped by Mellows’ room to tell him a joke he had heard. When McKelvey asked after the cause of the merriment, Mellows turned to repeat it to his cellmate.

“That was the last I saw of him, chuckling softy in the corridor,” O’Donnell remembered.

Blood for Blood

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Paudeen O’Keefe

O’Donnell was briefly disturbed that night by the flash of a light through the door, next to which he had his mattress. Peering through to the corridor beyond, O’Donnell could see one of the wardens, accompanied by the governor, Paudeen O’Keefe, who had a piece of paper in his hand. O’Donnell and his two cellmates strained their ears to listen, but whatever the men outside were doing, they did it too quietly for O’Donnell to understand. After a while, he lost interest and went back to sleep.

It was not until the morning, when in the prison chapel for Mass, that O’Donnell learnt the reason for the governor’s nocturnal visit: he had been waking Mellows, along with O’Connor, Dick Barrett and Joe McKelvey, with orders for them to dress and pack their belongings. Unaware of the reasons why, the four men were escorted out of C Wing and to separate rooms, where they were each handed a document, informing them that they were to be shot as a reprisal for Seán Hales.[62]

“I just went wooden. I was completely devoid of all feeling,” O’Donnell described. “I saw men sob and I heard men curse but the whole chapel was detached.”

And detached O’Donnell stayed, sitting numbly in the chapel even when Mass was done, before moving to the sacristy – though he did not remember doing so – where he met Father McMahon, the only one of the prison chaplains who O’Donnell semi-respected. It was only when McMahon told him of the executions, with the reassurance that he had given Mellows absolution, something otherwise denied to the prisoners, that O’Donnell snapped out of his vacantness and rounded angrily on the surprised priest.[63]

Father Pigott

The question of absolution had been a thorny one in Mountjoy ever since the episcopal intervention in the form of the Bishops’ pastoral letter in October 1922, which had brought the Church Hierarchy firmly in favour of the Free State. To O’Donnell and many of the other inmates, the prison chaplains had become another set of enemies to contend with.

“The bishops were leading a clerical faction while [Michael] Collins was leading a lay-faction,” was how O’Donnell put. “The spirit of Cromwell had returned to Ireland and Maynooth was its tabernacle.”[64]

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Archbishop McQuaid

Memories of absolution denied to unrepentant Anti-Treatyites inside prisons such as Mountjoy were still fresh enough for Canon John Pigott to write in the 1960s, at the behest of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, an account of his visit to Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey on the night of their deaths. Of those final hours, “there have been many different and very contradictory accounts of what actually happened.”

Pigott bemoaned how many of these reports “were spread abroad for their propaganda value without any regard for the truth.” In particularly, Pigott was keen to correct the impression that Mellows had gone to his end denied the spiritual comfort of the Last Sacrament:

That lie has been so persistently repeated by a small anti-clerical group that it is possible that a number of our people believe it.

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Rory O’Connor

As Pigott remembered, he was telephoned, between 1 and 2 am on the 8th December, from Mountjoy and told that there were to be executions of some of the prisoners, one of whom, Rory O’Connor, had asked for him. Then a chaplain for the Free State military, Pigott was not the most obvious choice, but he and O’Connor evidently knew each other from before.

In any case, he dressed in time for the car to come and drive him to the prison. Taken first to O’Connor’s cell, he found his friend pale but composed and accepting of his end. He was next asked by Father McMahon to see Mellows, with whom, McMahon explained: “We have not been getting on at all.”

Mellows was clearly going to be a more complex case than O’Connor. Pigott found him to be:

In a strange mood for one who was to die in a few hours. He was obviously agitated and talkative, and I believe, elated that he was going to die for Ireland. He said he had written to his mother, and handing me the letter he said: “Read that”.

Pigott did so, and was shocked to read Mellow informing his mother that he was being denied the sacraments in his final hours. He urged Mellows not to send such a piece and to use the short time left to pray for God’s forbearance. Pigott then withdrew, sensing that nothing would be gained by staying to argue. Father McMahon had apparently tried that already, only to leave Mellows as truculent as ever.

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Letter from Liam Mellows to his mother, in the National Museum of Ireland

Last Rites

Pigott next saw Mellows, with the three other condemned men, shortly afterwards in the chapel. While Father McMahon performed Mass, Pigott stood inside the altar rails, facing the kneeling prisoners while he recited with them the prayers. O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey received the Holy Communion which was to be their Viaticum, but Mellows, Pigott noted with dismay, did not.

Pigott made getting Mellows alone his priority, but time was running out as Mass ran to the length of an hour, and then an hour and a half. When McMahon was at last done, the four were ushered out of the chapel, Mellows at their head, with O’Connor in the rear, accompanied by Pigott.

As the prisoners were blindfolded, en route to the yard, Pigott saw his last chance to ensure Mellows’ spiritual salvation slipping away. Running up to the front of the line, Pigott took the cloth off Mellows’ head and said: “Liam Mellows, you are not going out there without Viaticum.”

“Ah! It’s too late now,” Mellows replied, according to Pigott’s account. “I have held them up all the morning.”

The priest insisted that this was not so, and that there was time yet for him to make his peace with the Almighty. “That he was now ready to do, I had not the slightest doubt,” Pigott remembered, salvation seemingly a question of timing as much as anything.

He took Mellows by the arm, back down the corridor to a room he had seen was open when he passed, while Father McMahon retrieved the sacramental instruments from the chapel. Then McMahon got down to work. Though long-delayed, the Last Rites took only a short while; Mellows, as Pigott put it, “was a deeply religious man, and his fervent prayers at the end had gained him a very special Grace from God.”

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Liam Mellows

As they went to rejoin the others, Mellows took out a small crucifix from his pocket. “I want you to give her this when all is over,” he told Pigott, meaning his mother. “It was out in 1916, too.”

There was one more detail Father Pigott had almost overlooked. As Mellows was being blindfolded again, the priest remembered the letter from before, and asked if he would like to write a few more words in light of his shriven state. Mellows declined, saying: “There is no time now.”

Slan libh

It took a few minutes for Mellows, O’Connor, Barrett and McKelvey to be lined up in the yard, their backs to the wall, before the firing squad. As Father Pigott delivered the Last Absolution, he saw Mellows shuffle the gravel beneath his feet so that he could stand more firmly.

“Slan libh [goodbye], lads,” he said, the crucifix firmly in hand.

In another instant the sign was given: the volley rang out: the men fell, and Canon McMahon and I anointed them where they lay on the ground.

The process had not been flawless, for McKelvey still lived, if barely, requiring one of the two Free State army officers on standby to deliver the coup de grâce. For the other three victims, at least, death had been instantaneous.

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Execution during the Civil War (presumably staged)

It was by then after 9 am, and Father Pigott, who was due to give Mass for the soldiers in Griffith Barracks, had to dash away, late enough as he was. He had reached the outer gate of Mountjoy when he remembered the crucifix, and so doubled back to pick it up from where it had fallen in the yard.

That cross would provide some solace to the priest, as it had to the condemned man, when it fell to Pigott to break the news to the bereaved mother. “Next day, with a heavy heart I called to the door in Mount Shannon Road [the Mellows’ household]. I felt I could never face the ordeal had I not in my pocket that little Crucifix ‘that was out in 1916 too.’”[65]

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The Mellows family home at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

However tragic, Father McMahon, for one, was heartened by how Mellows had not gone to meet His Maker burdened with sin. “I’m sorry for any wrong I have done,” Mellows had said, as the priest relayed to a distraught O’Donnell to comfort him.

In a way, it did. McMahon seems to have missed – though O’Donnell did not – that Mellows had not repented of anything specific, certainly not for his actions against the Free State and all it stood for. To the very end, Mellows had been unwilling to concede an inch.[66]

References

[1] O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011), pp. 91-6

[2] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 284

[3] O’Connor and Connolly, p. 96

[4] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 148

[5] Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, 22/06/1922

[6] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, pp. 147-54

[7] Fahy, Thomas (BMH / WS 383), pp. 4-5

[8] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 154

[9] Irish Times, 01/07/1922

[10] O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018), p. 26

[11] O’Connor and Connolly, pp. 98-9

[12] Ibid, p. 114

[13] Ibid, p. 99

[14] Ibid, pp. 113-4

[15] Ibid, p. 114

[16] O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007), p. 161

[17] Ibid, p. 111

[18] Ibid, p. 100

[19] Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922), p. 21

[20] Ibid, p. 18

[21] Irish Independent, 22/09/1922

[22] Workers’ Republic, 22/07/1922

[23] Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004), p. 3

[24] O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 5, 27 ; Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013), p. 31

[25] Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965), p. 17

[26] Irish Independent, 22/09/1922

[27] Mellows, Notes from Mountjoy, p. 17

[28] Greaves, p. 377

[29] Ibid, p. 378

[30] Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera, p. 19

[31] Ibid

[32] Ibid

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid, p. 23

[35] ‘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’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts, p. 231 (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)

[36] O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963), p. 9

[37] Ibid, p. 11

[38] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 213-4

[39] Moss Twomey Papers, P69/187, p. 92

[40] Ibid, p. 108

[41] Ibid, pp. 98-9

[42] Ibid, p. 113

[43] Ibid, p. 116

[44] Ibid, p. 113

[45] O’Donnell, p. 56

[46] Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008), p. 270

[47] Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera, p. 21

[48] O’Donoghue, T. (BMH / WS 1666), p. 13

[49] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, pp. 152-3

[50] Ibid, p. 173

[51] Ibid, p. 187

[52] Ibid, p. 191

[53] Ibid, p. 194

[54] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 497

[55] O’Donnell, p. 64

[56] Hopkinson, Michal. Green Against Green: The Irish Civil War (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd., 1988), p. 134

[57] Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950), pp. 26-7

[58] O’Malley, ‘No Surrender Here!’, p. 529

[59] Irish Times, 08/12/1922

[60] O’Donnell, p. 63

[61] Ibid, pp. 41-2

[62] Ibid, pp. 64-7

[63] Ibid, p. 69

[64] Ibid, pp. 36, 38

[65] Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 05/03/2019)

[66] O’Donnell, p. 27

Bibliography

Books

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

Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)

Clarke, Kathleen (edited by Litton, Helen) Revolutionary Woman (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 2008)

Correspondence of Mr Eamon de Valera and Others (Dublin: Stationery Office, 1922)

Ferriter, Diarmaid. A Nation and Not a Rabble: The Irish Revolution 1913-1923 (London: Profile Books Ltd, 2013)

Greaves, C. Desmond (introduction by Adams, Gerry) Liam Mellows and the Irish Revolution (Belfast: An Ghlór Gafa, 2004)

Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998)

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

Mellows, Liam. Notes from Mountjoy (London: Irish Communist Group, 1965)

O’Connor, Diarmuid and Connolly, Frank. Sleep Soldier Sleep: The Life and Times of Padraig O’Connor ([Kildare]: Miseab Publications, 2011)

O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

O’Donnell, Peadar. There Will Be Another Day (Dublin: The Dolmen Press, 1963)

O’Malley, Ernie (Aiken, Síobhra; Mac Bhloscaidh, Fearghal; Ó Duibhir, Liam; Ó Tuama Diarmuid) The Men Will Talk To Me: Ernie O’Malley’s Interviews with the Northern Divisions (Newbridge, Co. Kildare: Merrion Press, 2018)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by O’Malley, Cormac K.H. and Dolan, Anne, introduction by Lee, J.J.) ‘No Surrender Here!’ The Civil War Papers of Ernie O’Malley, 1922-1924 (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2007)

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

Newspapers

Irish Independent

Irish Times

Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland

Workers’ Republic

Bureau of Military History Statements

Fahy, Thomas, WS 383

O’Donoghue, T., WS 1666

UCD Archives

Moss Twomey Papers

Online Sources

‘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’, CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts (Available at https://celt.ucc.ie/published/E900003-001/index.html, accessed 11/03/2018)

Pigott, John. ‘Executions Recalled (1922)’, Athenry Journal, Volume 8, Christmas 1997, pp. 8-9 (Available at http://athenryparishheritage.com/executions-recalled-1922-by-canon-john-pigott/, accessed 05/03/2019)

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

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

The Only Authority Left

Since its armed takeover, on the 14th April 1922, by the anti-Treaty faction of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Four Courts in Dublin had been, in the words of one of its garrison, a “veritable fortress”. Which was appropriate, given that it served as the base for the IRA leadership, the sixteen-strong Executive. As a mark of its importance, the building complex was reinforced with sandbags and barricades in its windows, behind which sentries with rifles and machine-guns watched over the city.

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The Four Courts, Dublin

The overall impression was one of rough, unvarnished power:

Everything concerning it, emanating from it and centring it was purely and principally military; nothing was left to chance, as a military post and general Headquarters…In other words, it was the core, the very essence of IRA activity and of IRA administration.[1]

Entry was strictly limited to those issued with a pass by the garrison command, whether for its soldiers or the odd guest. One of the latter was Robert Brennan, who came sometime in May 1922, in response to an invitation by Liam Mellows, the Quartermaster of the IRA Executive.

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Liam Mellows

They had known each other since 1911, when Brennan had come across a troop of Fianna Éireann boys in Wexford, the one with unusually fair hair catching his attention in particular. When introduced to this golden youth, Brennan found himself “looking into the blue eyes of Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[2]

Such virtues had waned somewhat by the time the two men met again inside the Four Courts, eleven years later. Despite his own rejection of the Treaty, Brennan made clear his disapproval of his fellow Anti-Treatyites and their antics when he turned down Mellows’ offer to be their Director of Publicity.

He could not, Brennan explained, because there was nothing more that publicity could do: they had abandoned all authority save that of the gun and no amount of public relations could hide that unpalatable fact.

Mellows was hurt at the accusation. “The Republic is being undermined,” he replied. “What else could we have done?”

“Possibly nothing,” Brennan said bluntly. “Your job is to get the other fellow to submit or submit yourselves. The time for publicity is passed.”

“Well, we’re going to act.”

“How?”

“By attacking the British.”

“But they are going out.”

“We’ll attack them before they leave.”

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Robert Brennan

When an unimpressed Brennan told him what he thought of that, Mellows insisted: “It’s not as crazy as you think. It’s the only way we can unite the Army.”

In that regards, Mellows had a point. A common foe would certainly do wonders in bringing the sundered comrades together again. But it was a sign of how topsy-turvy the world had become that a man whose efforts to free Ireland of foreign rule had been second to none was now, in all seriousness, suggesting the return of British soldiers for want of any other solution.

When Ernie O’Malley walked in to ask Mellows about the tunnels to be dug for an escape route. Brennan made his excuses and left, more depressed than ever at the insanity unfolding all around him.[3]

Friendly Exchanges

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Éamon de Valera

A glimmer of hope came to a country poised on the brink of fratricidal war when, on the 20th May, Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera put their names to an agreement. A general election would be held and contested by both their respective factions, but with everyone standing on the same Sinn Féin platform, without reference to the Treaty, either in regard to the candidates’ opinions or for the country in general – the matter being considered too prickly to be grasped just yet.

In truth, it was intended to be an election in name only with the voters doing nothing more than rubber-stamping the names presented to them, but that the two sides could agree on anything at all was heralded as a major breakthrough. Former comrades who had been at each other’s throats now mingled freely inside the National University, as TDs waited for the Dáil session to open so they could give this accord the official seal of approval. Mellows stood with his legs far apart, his hands deep in the pockets of his riding-breeches while he chatted with Richard Mulcahy.[4]

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The National Concert Hall, Dublin, formerly the National University and the site for the Dáil

After all the gnawing tension, the announcement of this ‘Pact Election’ was “greeted with relief by all of us,” remembered Máire Comerford, a secretary in the Sinn Féin offices:

Everything looked brighter after that…Now, with the Pact, friendly exchanges of arms going in between Free Staters and Republicans…and a conference between the rival armies which had reached the point of agreement, it seemed certain that there would be an agreement.[5]

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Seán Mac Mahon

Mellows took full advantage of this, visiting Beggars Bush barracks to see Seán Mac Mahon, Quartermaster to the Free State forces. Joining him on a number of these visits was Tony Woods, son of Mary Woods, whose home on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, had provided a base for Mellows during his gun-running days as Director of Purchases.

Probably because of his acquaintance with Mellows, Tony Woods had been transferred to his staff and travelled with Mellows to Waterford to help arrange the arms-landing there, via the Frieda, in November 1921. Woods remembered his commanding officer as a “low-sized man with a very high forehead; extremely witty and a great story-teller.”

The purpose of the meetings in Beggars Bush, as with Mellows’ previous duty, was that of weapons. The Free State owned the City of Dortmund, another ship used to smuggle in guns, and it was a sign of the heady new rapprochement that half the shipments went to the Anti-Treatyites while the pro-Treaty IRA kept the rest. Woods was uncertain of the details at the time, but the idea was that these weapons would make their way up to Ulster, where the Northern IRA was still engaged with British forces.

As well as in Beggars Bush, Woods joined his commanding officer for clandestine visits to Sir John Rogerson’s Quay to meet a mystery contact of Mellows’. There, they received implements for the purpose of overturning trams to form barricades and listened to some far-fetched scheme to flood the British market with forged pound notes.

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Sir John Rogerson’s Quay today

Though Woods never caught the contact’s name, he suspected he was a Communist, Mellows being open to such company. This put him at odds with his more conservatively-minded peers, for whom Bolshevism and their Catholic faith could never meet, let alone mix. While Mellows was “religious in his own way,” Woods thought, “he nonetheless tended towards socialism.”[6]

Moderates and Extremists

Even as relations between the Pro and Anti-Treatyites began to thaw, those within the IRA Executive conversely took a turn for the worse.

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Liam Lynch

Perhaps it was the lack of a firm guiding hand that caused cracks to form in the Executive. Maybe its components were too strong-minded to ever coexist comfortably with one another. Authority nominally rested in Liam Lynch as their Chief of Staff but, having bucked military discipline once before, it was no great taboo to do so again, and it soon became apparent that different groups were acting on their own volition without consideration for the rest.

“Thus the Rory O’Connor element was doing one thing and the Lynch party something different,” was how Joseph O’Connor – a Dublin member of the Executive (and no relation to Rory) – put it, a sigh almost audible in his words. When a number of bank robberies were carried out, Joseph was not even sure if it had been Lynch or Mellows who authorised them.[7]

Deasy
Liam Deasy

Another Executive insider, Liam Deasy, was similarly in despair. He was close to Lynch, and it pained him how, for all of his fellow Corkonian’s accomplishments in the fight against Britain, it was “painfully obvious that he was not considered sufficiently extreme by some of his colleagues.”

Deasy characterised these tensions as “a clash between the moderates and the extremists.” He counted Lynch and himself as the former, while identifying Mellows, along with Rory O’Connor and Séumas Robinson, as among the latter. Mellows was at least more personable than O’Connor, but that small mercy did little to alleviate the tensions, the result of which led to:

…many unpleasant incidents reflecting badly on the elected Executive. Worse still it appeared as if a number of independent armies were being formed on the anti-Treaty side.

The hurt and anger are still discernable in Deasy’s words, written years later in his memoirs: “Although we were regarded as moderate, we felt that our policy was consistent and meaningful.”

mulcahy046This policy in question was that, by keeping the anti-Treaty IRA armed and intact, they could push for – or force – a more republican-orientated Constitution for the new government, one without the burden of the Oath of Allegiance that so stuck in many a craw. Not that there was any need to worry, reassured Mulcahy and Michael Collins, for such a constitution was already on the cards. This was good enough for Lynch and Deasy, who “had at the time, no reason to doubt the credibility or integrity of those who had given that promise.”[8]

Which was one of the points on which the ‘moderates’ and ‘extremists’ on the IRA Executive differed. Todd Andrews became acquainted with Mellows while performing clerical work in the Four Courts as part of its garrison. When Mellows entered his office, where he was working alone, the two struck up a conversation on the state of affairs. Andrews found him to be “a low-sized man with thinning sandy hair and merry blue lively eyes. His whole personality seemed to radiate kindness. He was a dea-dhuine (decent man).”

Andrews was flattered that someone so important would take the time to ask his opinions. When the topic of conversation came to that of their Chief of Staff, the kindness became rather less evident, for it seemed to Andrews that Mellows was “critical of Liam Lynch for placing too much trust in Collins’ and Mulcahy’s good intentions.”[9]

Surprises

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Seán MacBride

Seán MacBride was unaware of much of this drama, having been in Berlin for the past ten days on Mellows’ behalf. Most of his work in Ireland involved the secretarial side of the IRA, such as the paperwork dealing with the numbers of the various anti-Treaty units throughout the country, but the cosmopolitan 18-year-old (and future politician) was also sent abroad by Mellows on occasion for certain assignments.

This time, it was to contact an arms dealer called Hoover, who the IRA suspected of double-crossing them. MacBride succeeded in convincing Hoover to accompany him back to Ireland for a meeting, set for the morning of the 18th June, the plan being for MacBride to arrest the miscreant then and there. Hoover was none the wiser as they caught the early morning mail-ship to Dublin, where they separated, Hoover heading off to the Shelbourne Hotel while MacBride made his way to the Four Courts.

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Ernie O’Malley

Upon arrival, MacBride availed himself of a wash and some food before chancing upon a flustered Mellows, much to the latter’s relief, for an IRA convention was set to start and no one could find the notes prepared in advance. As MacBride hurried off to help find them, he saw O’Malley, his superior as the Director of Organisation.

O’Malley was only just getting up, having toiled well into the night. He quickly brought his young assistant up to date with recent developments. There had been backroom talks between the heads of the pro and anti-Treaty IRAs, he explained, about healing the breach and reuniting former brothers-in-arms.

Which was a noble goal in principle. As certain members of the Executive would hold positions on the proposed new Army Council and thus retain some influence, it might even be said to be a good deal. But, in practical terms, such a move would also mean coming under the control of the Free State and all that – specifically the Treaty – entailed.

When these proposals had been put before the IRA Executive, they were voted down by fourteen to four, although it was also agreed for a convention to be summoned, the third in three months. There, the questions could be put to their followers and decided on for good.

“Of course all these things came on me like a bombshell, as when I left the whole Executive was quite united,” MacBride recalled. Clearly, a lot could happen in ten days.

There was no time for MacBride to deal personally with Hoover, whose appointment in the Four Courts was almost due. So he delegated the arrest to someone else, while he tracked down the necessary documents for the convention, to be held in the Mansion House.

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Mansion House, Dublin

It took an hour for MacBride to finish checking the credentials for the various delegates at the door, and then another lengthy period of time as the question of who among the Executive was to be the chairman was discussed – and discussed – and discussed. Such was the tenseness of the atmosphere that even a simple matter as that was anything but. Finally, Joseph O’Connor was chosen for the role and the convention could begin.[10]

Breakup

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Tom Barry

As MacBride remembered – and there would slightly different versions of that event from other attendees – Mellows opened by reading a report on the general state of affairs. When he was done, Tom Barry, the famed guerrilla commander from West Cork, rose to make a proposal. Instead of the one on whether to reunite with the Pro-Treatyites, as many in the hall had been expecting, it was that an ultimatum be delivered to the British Army still stationed in Ireland: withdraw within seven-two hours or face war all over again.

MacBride had been warned beforehand by O’Malley, but most of the others present were caught by surprise. It took another lengthy, drawn-out process, with various speakers chipping in, for it to be generally understood that Barry’s war motion was intended to be an alternative to the reunification one.

In MacBride’s opinion, “it was very foolish of Barry to have put forward such a resolution at the Convention.” While he agreed with what the Corkman was trying to do, “by putting it forward at a Convention without consulting anybody, as he did, was putting those who supported that policy in a very awkward position.”

As if to pour oil on to the fire, Mellows followed up with a “very depressing speech”, which exposed all too “clearly that there was a very big split in the Executive.”

Anyone previously unaware of these festering divisions could be left in no doubt now. On one side was Liam Lynch, the Chief of Staff, who was pushing for the reunification proposals, with the support of Liam Deasy and Seán Moylan. Arrayed against them in favour of a more hard-line approach were Mellows, Rory O’Connor and Tom Barry.

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IRA members of the First Southern Division, posing at an earlier convention

MacBride lost track of the proceedings, as speech after speech was delivered, blurring into one. When the war motion was finally put to the vote, MacBride was one of the two tellers. Barry’s proposal was found to have passed by a couple of votes, a razor-thin majority which was immediately challenged on the basis that certain delegates had not been present at the previous convention in May, thus invalidating their contributions. When the objection was upheld, a revote was made, this time resulting in the defeat of Barry’s motion.

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Rory O’Connor

This was too much for Mellows and Rory O’Connor, who left the room when the reunification proposals were brought up in turn. With them followed half the remaining participants, including MacBride. He found O’Connor and Mellows conversing outside with Joe McKelvey, a third member of the Executive. Another convention would be held, the trio announced to those who had accompanied them, in the Four Courts the next day.

There was just two further matters to see to, both of which Mellows assigned to MacBride: return to the convention and alert the rest as to what had been said. Also, he was to retrieve Mellows’ hat, left behind in the commotion.

MacBride did so. “There was an absolute stillness and I could hear my steps like shots from the top of the room to the door. A few more delegates came out.”[11]

Amputation and Isolation

When Joseph O’Connor called in on the Four Courts the following morning, he was barred by the sentry, who pointed to a set of photographs at hand and said he had been instructed to refuse entry to anyone depicted. The faces were those who, like O’Connor, had stayed behind at the convention instead of leaving with the dissenters.

O’Connor was shocked. He had watched for some time, with growing dismay how fissures formed in the Executive, but this exclusion was the final straw. When O’Connor could not even see anyone in charge for an explanation, he turned instead to the rest of the Executive, who had likewise been expelled from their own headquarters.

And so it was a diminished body who gathered at Gardiner’s Row for an uncomfortable session. Lynch, in particular, was outraged but, since there was little any of them could do, it was decided to take no action for the moment. While O’Connor was departing Gardiner’s Row, he came across Mellows, who urged him to return to the Four Courts. Clearly, there were second doubts about the wisdom of such a heavy-handed approach.

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Joe McKelvey

As O’Connor was still in a sour mood, it took some persuasion on Mellows’ part for him to agree to meet with the Executive mutineers, who were in the midst of setting up a war council of their own. After O’Connor explained to them at length the lunacy of having two separate anti-Treaty armies in Dublin, concessions were made in the form of Lynch and his adherents being allowed inside the Four Courts again. Lynch had by then resigned as Chief of Staff, with McKelvey taking up the role instead, for what it was worth, as his authority did not extend to anyone other than the occupants of the Four Courts.[12]

It was a peculiar situation. Having witnessed the debacle of the convention, Todd Andrews was so disgusted that he announced to his senior officer, Ernie O’Malley, his intention to resign. O’Malley talked him out of it, but the fact remained, in all its spiteful absurdity, that “the Four Courts garrison had amputated their most powerful limb, effectively isolating themselves in the last bastion of the Republic.”[13]

‘The Straight Road to the Republic’

220px-theobald_wolfe_tone_-_project_gutenberg_13112Two days later, on the 20th June, three or four army lorries drove Mellows, Rory O’Connor and other senior officers from the Four Courts to Bodenstown to mark the anniversary of Wolfe Tone’s birth. Ireland, the republican cause and the IRA, whatever the particular faction, may have been in pitiable disarray, but there were still rituals to perform and commemorations to attend.

The day was a dark and muggy one, with an overcast sky, perfectly suited to “suggest the pathetic fallacy to match our gloomy mood,” remembered Andrews, who had joined the pilgrimage. The others huddled around Mellows as he made a speech at Tone’s graveside, full of denunciations of those who were trying to undermine the Republic – and that included anyone, whether Free State or faint-hearts like Lynch who talked the talk while lacking the nerve when it counted.[14]

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Liam Mellows speaking at Bodenstown in May 1922

It was an attitude summed up by MacBride who, unlike Andrews, was in full agreement with such a viewpoint:

It was far better to break off quits from those who were prepared to compromise on such a vital question, that of the control of the Army, and of the working of the Treaty. As in fact they had already done when they acquiesced in the proposals by which the control of the Army was to be given to the Provisional Government.

Far from being a calamity:

It probably would have been even better if such a split had come before, however weakening it might have been; it was far more weakening to have the Army controlled by people, who, although sincere, did not put their heart into it and who still believed their opponents could be trusted in negotiations.[15]

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Frank Robbins

‘The straight road to the Republic’ was how Mellows had explained it to a friend, Frank Robbins, who visited him in the Four Courts the day after its takeover. Robbins had urged him to compromise or else prepare for war, but Mellows had dismissed the possibility of either happening, unable or unwilling to face the looming consequences of his actions, even when they were explained to him.[16]

And perhaps that was his fatal flaw, and the reason he and the others were so daring, and so dogmatic, because, almost to the last hour, none of them truly believed that things would reach the point of war.

Impossibilities

A war with Britain, yes, another one would be ideal, as Mellows had explained to Brennan. What better way to bury the hatchet than by planting it inside the skull of a common foe? But a war against fellow Irishmen? Even a precocious young cynic like Andrews assumed the Pro-Treatyites would never go so far as to attack them, however fragmented they were. For this would mean civil war, and such a thing was clearly an impossibility.

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IRA men

“Something would still be done to avoid that contingency,” was how Andrews remembered the thinking at the time. “I never thought it could happen that IRA men would try to kill fellow IRA men.”[17]

Mellows happily sleepwalked into disaster with the rest. In the week before the 28th June 1922, when – to steal a line from W.B. Yeats – ‘all changed, changed utterly’, Mellows sent for Sheila Humphreys, a member of Cumann na mBan who had sheltered IRA leaders like Richard Mulcahy and Cathal Brugha during the War of Independence, back when they were all on the same side. She met him at the home of Mary Woods on Morehampton Road, Donnybrook, another republican safe-house for troubled times.

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131 Morehampton Road, Dublin

There, Mellows cheerfully outlined to Humphreys how the Pro and anti-Treaty IRA factions had acceded to a policy he had long hoped for: uniting against Britain, specifically British rule in the North. If the enemy would not come to them, then the Fenian Mohammed would go to the imperial mountain.

With that in mind, he instructed her to pick six other women from Cumann na mBan and go with them to Co. Donegal to set up a field hospital in preparation for the operations to come. In addition to first aid equipment, he provided a revolver each for the women, including spare ammunition and explosives.[18]

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Cumann na mBan

Some of these had come off the City of Dortmund and shared between the rival parties during the earlier lull in tension. Other firearms from the cargo were still inside the Four Courts by the time of the 28th June, when all hell broke loose. With the benefit of hindsight, Tony Woods pointed out that this “will give some idea of the speed with which events moved in the weeks preceding, and how suddenly completely personal relationships came to be broken.”[19]

Stand-Off

Over the next few days that led up to the 28th June, events moved with considerable speed, indeed.

A stand-off unfolded on the 26th in South Dublin, as a body of pro-Treaty IRA men rode in on lorries from Beggars Bush to confront the Anti-Treatyites who had held up a garage in Lower Baggot Street. All its cars had already been driven away to the Four Courts, and the anti-Treaty men who remained were in the process of wrecking the garage machinery when their Free State opponents arrived to box them in.

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Free State soldiers behind an armoured lorry

As reported by the Irish Times:

Negotiations were entered into between the leaders of the two parties, and it is understood that the official forces demanded complete evacuation on the part of the raiders and also, it was stated, the return of the “commandeered” cars.

The trapped Anti-Treatyites were given three hours, until 6 pm, to comply. After two and a half, the twenty workmen held prisoner inside were allowed to leave. Soon afterwards, the Pro-Treatyites manoeuvred one of their armoured vehicles to the front of the garage, training its machine-gun on the closed gate, while the rest of the squad positioned themselves for the threatened assault.

As 6 o’clock approached, it looked as if fire would be opened at any minute, but at the stroke of six the gate was opened, and the Beggars Bush forces were admitted.

It appeared that some of the Anti-Treatyites had already absconded via a back entrance. Those still present were detained, though only one was made a prisoner – the commanding officer, Leo Henderson. Despite the non-violent (‘peaceful’ would be too strong a word) resolution, it had been a close thing.

“Indeed,” wrote the Irish Times, “it seemed at one time as if a conflict between the forces of the Provisional Government and certain irregulars was imminent.”[20]

The Four Courts garrison issued a protest to the media at Henderson’s treatment as a common prisoner in Mountjoy Prison. They quickly made their displeasure known in a more direct way when, in a tit-for-tat move, Lieutenant-General J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell was held up while leaving a friend’s house on Leeson Street.

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J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell

That O’Connell had seen fit to make personal calls, while uniformed and unattended in public, does not suggest that the sense of danger among the Pro-Treatyites was high. But that changed. Contrary to their demands for a full return, only two of the sixteen cars stolen from Lower Baggot Street had been given back and now, with a general of theirs a captive in the Four Courts, a decision was made.[21]

Snowballing

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Michael Collins

Despite the commotion over Henderson, the talk at the IRA Executive conclave inside the Four Courts, on the 27th June, was about nothing in particular. Even the news that Michael Collins had just returned from London, where he had been castigated for his failure to break the impasse, did little to worry them.

At the end, as Joseph O’Connor made to leave, he was informed by his adjutant that their pro-Treaty opponents in the city had been confined to their barracks, as if in readiness for…something.

When O’Connor passed this on to Liam Lynch, the other man merely said: “I suppose it is in connection with the arrest of Ginger O’Connell.” He added, almost as an afterthought: “You had better tell McKelvey.”

When O’Connor did so, McKelvey at least had the presence of mind to alert the Dublin IRA about the city to stand to until midnight. Mellows chose that moment to invite O’Connor to tea, “being anxious to tell me of IRB [Irish Republican Brotherhood] activities in having the Treaty accepted.”

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Liam Mellows

That the IRB was at the root of their problems was a conspiracy theory favoured by many of the Anti-Treatyites, including Mellows. Long gone were the days when he had been an active operative for the Brotherhood, on whose behalf he travelled the length of the country to prepare for the Easter Rising.

When O’Connor declined the offer on account of having to be with the rest of the Dubliners, they agreed to meet instead on the following evening. Clearly, neither of them suspected that anything was especially amiss.

That was the last time the pair were to see each other, as O’Connor mournfully recounted:

At four o’clock the following morning the attack on the Courts started and I never saw Mellows again. What a pity, for of all the men on the Executive, he was the one I most loved.

During the previous four months of trouble and anxiety we had become very close friends, in complete sympathy with each other’s national outlook, and I certainly would have liked to have got that story.[22]

O’Connor departed the Four Courts, accompanied by Liam Lynch, with Mellows and most of the other Executive members remaining. By 10 pm of the 27th, the rumours of an impending assault had become definite when a visiting Franciscan friar informed them that Free State soldiers were leaving the Curragh, Co. Kildare, in the direction of Dublin.

The lovingly-crafted fantasy world that Mellows had inhabited for the past few weeks, in which everything was fine and all would sort itself out, was about to be rudely intruded.

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Free State soldiers on parade

Staying Put

Suddenly alert to the inadequacy of their defences, neglected during the past few weeks of inactivity, the senior garrison officers hurriedly – and belatedly – consulted each other on what to do.

Always one of the more aggressive among them, O’Malley wanted word sent to the Dublin IRA for them to post snipers over the routes to the Four Courts to stop the Free Staters in their tracks, with preparations to be made for a counter-attack. But McKelvey disagreed on the grounds that they should retain the moral high ground of not casting the first blow. O’Malley, Mellows and Paddy O’Brien, the garrison commander, were exasperated at this indolence, however well-meant, but McKelvey’s motion to hold their ground and do nothing else was carried by the rest of the Executive.

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Four Courts, Dublin

As armoured cars drove up, the Anti-Treatyites were forced to watch impotently from the windows, under orders not to shoot, while enemy soldiers disembarked to cut the wires of the mines planted outside, rendering useless even these token precautions. At least the defenders could busy themselves by erecting more coils of barbed wire, cleaning their guns and checking the ammunition stocks, but otherwise did nothing as more vehicles arrived, the Lancia lorries parking before the gates as if to point out how thoroughly besieged the occupants were becoming.

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Lancia lorry in the Free State Army

Under the dome of the rotunda, the leadership met again, with Mellows, McKelvey, Rory O’Connor, O’Malley, O’Brien and others sitting in a half-circle on the floor. Some wanted to escape while they could and join the anti-Treaty units outside the city but Mellows was unsure.

“We don’t know what the country will do,” he pointed out, meaning the other Anti-Treatyites. At last he seemed conscious of the damage their bickering had caused. Even if the rest of the anti-Treaty IRA decided to join them, it might not be in time to make a difference.

“We have created the Four Court situation,” he concluded, according to O’Malley’s recollections. “We should face the responsibility.”

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Inside the Four Courts (modern reconstruction)

He was seconded by Rory O’Connor. As they represented the Republic, he said, it was only right they stay to defend it, regardless of how poor a strategy that was. Paddy O’Brien protested, urging the Executive to slip away while he and the rest kept the Pro-Treatyites busy, but was once again overruled.[23]

Not so manageable was Séumas Robinson, the O/C of the South Tipperary IRA. To him, staying put like so many eggs in a basket was pure idiocy. After an attempt by Mellows and O’Connor to persuade him otherwise degenerated into a heated row, Robinson stormed off into the night. It was another loss for the Executive, one final split in a movement bedevilled by them.[24]

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Séumas Robinson

Still, for some, the glass before them was half-full. As the defenders prepared for the showdown, resigned to a fight many suspected they could not win, Mellows paced the grounds with a rifle slung over his back, finally in his element.

“God, it’s good to feel myself a soldier again after all these futile negotiations,” he told O’Malley, patting the barrel of his gun.[25]

To be continued in: Rebel Thinker: Liam Mellows and the Philosophy of Resistance, 1922 (Part VIII)

References

[1] Prendergast, Seán (BMH / WS 755, Part 3), p. 100

[2] Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950), pp. 26-7

[3] Ibid, p. 388

[4] Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland, 25/05/1922

[5] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 45

[6] Ibid, pp. 317-9

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

[8] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), pp. 39-40 ; O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormach K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015), p. 199

[9] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 221, 237

[10] MacEoin, pp. 126-8

[11] Ibid, pp. 128-30

[12] O’Connor, Joseph pp. 6-7, 9-10

[13] Andrews, p. 243

[14] Ibid

[15] MacEoin, p. 129

[16] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 229-30

[17] Andrews, pp. 243-4, 246

[18] MacEoin, pp. 342-3

[19] Ibid, p. 319

[20] Irish Times, 27/07/1922

[21] Ibid, 28/07/1922

[22] O’Connor, Joseph, pp. 10-1

[23] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 120-4

[24] Robinson, Séumas (BMH / WS 1721), p. 78

[25] O’Malley, The Singing Flame, p. 126

Bibliography

Books

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

Brennan, Robert. Allegiance (Dublin: Browne and Noble Limited, 1950)

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

MacEoin, Uinseann. Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)

O’Malley, Ernie (edited by Bielenberg, Andy; Borgonovo, John and Ó Ruairc, Pádraig Óg; preface by O’Malley, Cormac K.H.) The Men Will Talk to Me – West Cork Interviews by Ernie O’Malley (Cork: Mercier Press, 2015)

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)

Newspapers

Irish Times

Poblacht Na h-Eireann – The Republic of Ireland

Bureau of Military History Statements

O’Connor, Joseph, WS 544

Prendergast, Seán, WS 755

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

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