Rebel Exile: Intrigue and Factions with Liam Mellows in the United States of America, 1916-8 (Part IV)

A continuation from: Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)

Finally in America

Safe in New York, if unsettled, Patrick Callanan pined for his friend and former commanding officer, Liam Mellows. Other Irishmen had joined him in the United States, also fleeing in the wake of the failed Easter Rising, but Mellows was not amongst them.

Callanan had discussed him with John Devoy when he visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper – of which Devoy was editor – after coming to New York in November 1916. Callanan reassured Devoy, a Fenian old-timer and one of the most powerful men in the Irish-American community, that Mellows was on his way. And yet, with no further word, Callanan could not help but worry.

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New York, circa 1900

His own journey had been an arduous one. After the disbandment of the Galway Volunteers at Limepark House on Mellows’ reluctant orders, Callanan was among those forced to go on the run. He first hid out with his cousins in Co. Galway, before moving to Co. Clare and then Waterford town, from where he took a boat to Liverpool, and then another to Philadelphia.

The Atlantic crossing took nineteen days, at risk all the while from German submarines. When nearing the mouth of the Delaware River, the crew was told to extinguish all lights lest they betray their position to any lurking U-boats. After disembarking safely, Callanan pushed on to New York, where Devoy and the Irish-American organisation he headed, Clan na Gael, welcomed him with open arms as a fellow revolutionary.

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Count von Bernstorff

Provided with some money by Devoy for living expenses. Callanan could at least take a well-earned. But waiting idly did not suit him, nor did it for many of his compatriots in the city, and the initiative was made – without consulting Devoy – to contact the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff.

Following some consultation with Berlin, Bernstorff was able to report back the willingness of his government to land arms and soldiers on the west coast of Ireland. Considering the lacklustre support Germany had granted to the previous uprising earlier in the year, this was a questionable claim, but Callanan took it at face value.

Callanan was abed one night in December 1916 when he was woken by someone pulling at him. To his surprise and joy, it was none other than Mellows. The two comrades-in-arms had not seen each other since leaving Limepark House, eight months ago. After sleeping the rest of the morning in bed together, Callanan took him to the Gaelic American office and introduced him to Devoy, who was quite taken with the newcomer, praising him as the most capable man who had yet arrived (Callanan did not seem offended by this), and going so far as to offer him a job on his newspaper.

Devoy would not be quite so amiable when learning of the contacts made with Count von Bernstorff. The émigrés had gone behind his back, on his territory of New York no less, and Devoy was fiercely intolerant of anything that encroached on his prerogatives. His anger was a sign that life in America for the Irish exiles would not necessarily be an easy, nor a straightforward, one.[1]

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(Left to right) Roger Casement with John Devoy in New York, 1914

The War Continues

Callanan let Mellows in on the arrangement for Germany to supply arms and men to Ireland. Having been let down before by their ‘gallant allies in Europe’, Mellows thought it best to proceed with care by first sending a man to Germany and another two to Ireland to ensure the whole process went smoothly. Callanan went along with Mellows’ amendments to the plan without a murmur. After examining some maps together, they agreed that the Martello Tower near Kinvara, Co. Galway, would make the best landing site.[2]

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Martello Tower, Co. Galway

It would be but another move in the fight for Irish freedom, which had been paused but never ceased as far as Mellows was concerned. He was especially keen to correct all talk to the contrary, as Callanan described:

At this time rumours were current in America that there would be no more fighting in Ireland and that all we wanted was to be represented at the Peace Conference [when the First World War was over]. Mellows resented this very much and he stated at several meetings that Ireland would fight again, and what we wanted was arms.[3]

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Liam Mellows

Even when Callanan moved to Boston, the two men remained in contact. One Saturday – the day he usually visited New York to see Mellows – Callanan found his friend in an especially serious mood.

Mellows told him that he had been in communication with a German woman living on the West Coast. She was willing to offer a boat of hers at their disposal if a crew could be provided. For this, Mellows tasked Callanan with finding four or five others to serve as firemen and coal-passers, while he would inquire after engineers.

The plan was for Mellows to lead the others in sailing through Russian waters to Germany, taking the lengthier westwards route rather than the more direct Atlantic one to avoid the British navy. In Germany, the boat would be loaded with munitions and then landed in Ireland, as previously discussed.

Fired up, Callanan agreed to do his part and succeeded in recruiting four sailors-to-be, but when the pair met again on the following Saturday, Mellows admitted to being unable to muster enough engineers. The plan was cancelled and, while it would not be the only arms-running attempt, it was but the first of many setbacks Mellows faced in the Land of the Free.[4]

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New York, circa 1900

A Great Spirit

In the meantime, there were other ways to further the cause. To his delight, Callanan found that in the States “a great spirit prevailed at this time, especially among those of Irish descent. They were all very anxious to hear about the happenings of Easter Week.”[5]

It was a zeitgeist Clan na Gael was keen to tap into it, and Mellows spoke on behalf of the society at a series of meetings. As one of the participants in the Rising, and a leading one at that, Mellows made for an especially effective speaker, holding his audiences spellbound with his tales of the heroics from that fateful week.

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Robert Briscoe, in later years

His oratory, remembered one witness, Robert Briscoe, “made you see things he had experienced, and dream the same great dreams.” Though the revolution had been bloodied, Mellows assured his listeners, it had not been broken. It lived on, seething beneath the seemingly pacified surface of the country. This was music to Briscoe’s ears. The vision Mellows invoked “struck deep into my soul, bludgeoning my common sense.”

Since landing in the United States from Dublin in December 1914, Briscoe had lived the life of a Horatio Alger hero, earning his first dollar as a humble packer before partnering in a lucrative company that produced Christmas tree-lights. But the American dream proved not enough, as Briscoe found his thoughts returning to his homeland, piqued in particular by the news of Easter Week.

Hearing Mellows speak confirmed to Briscoe what he had to do. Turning his back on his thriving business, he took on the duties of shipping guns to Ireland. In time, he would become a close friend of the man who had made him a convert.[6]

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Sinn Féin postcard, 1918

Frank Robbins

While Mellows was helping to clear the doubts of others, he was having some of his own. “If I had known as much in Easter Week as I know today I would never have fired a shot,” he told Frank Robbins as they were walking together in New York in mid-1917.[7]

Like Mellows, Robbins had fought in the Rising, except in his case he had been a sergeant in the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), in charge of occupying the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. Released from Frognoch Camp in August 1916, his defiance, like that of Mellows’, remained undimmed as he assisted in the ICA revival, or at least tried to, as it lacked the necessary funds and contacts to make much of an impact anymore.

But Robbins did not allow himself to despair. When asked by Tom Foran, the General President of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), to head Stateside and connect with the Union’s erstwhile leader, Jim Larkin, Robbins readily accepted.[8]

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Irish Trade Union Congress, with Jim Larkin (second from the right, seated)

Reaching New York in late 1916, Robbins made the acquaintance of many in the radical Irish-American scene, including Devoy and Mellows, the latter he came in contact with through a mutual friend, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Week martyr, James Connolly. Both Robbins and Mellows had been close to her father, but they had not met until Nora passed on Mellows’ address at 73 West 96th Street, where he was staying with the Kirwan family.

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John Mitchel

Robbins was thrilled to meet a man who had been so influential in revolutionary circles back in Ireland, and who continued being so in New York, recognised by all, according to Robbins, as the de facto leader of the ‘1916 exiles’. The appreciation was reciprocated, with Mellows giving Robbins a copy he had signed of John Mitchel’s classic Jail Journal.[9]

Doubts and Uncertainties

And so it was with some surprise that Robbins heard Mellows express such bitter incertitude. Only the Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) had the authority to declare an uprising, Mellows said, and that had been appropriated. To Robbins’ astonishment, Mellows castigated those responsible as a junta which had ignored everyone else in its pursuit of its own intrigues.

Robbins thought this change of heart was due to what certain other Irish émigrés had been saying, but Mellows adamantly denied this to be the case. Robbins then methodically dissected Mellows’ volte-face.

He had been singing the praises of the Rising, while eulogising James Connolly, Tom Clarke, Patrick Pearse and all the others who had laid down their lives to rejuvenate Ireland’s soul, bringing the cause of national freedom to the world stage, and saving its manhood from British servitude. With all that said, if Mellows now believed the opposite, he should go back before the people of America and tell them so.

“But before you do that, I would ask you to examine the whole matter thoroughly,” Robbins continued. For if Mellows was still uncertain, he would have to give the benefit of the doubt to those who had made the ultimate sacrifice and whose efforts, Mellows had to agree, were now bearing the fruits the two of them were looking forward to gathering.

“Thanks, Frank,” Mellows replied, “I never looked at it that way. You have eased my mind considerably. I was very worried about the whole matter.”[10]

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Frank Robbins

Another disagreement was when Mellows posed the question as to what form of government a free Ireland should take. As Robbins was a staunch republican, and knew Mellows to be the same, he assumed his friend was jesting in his contention that the people should be free to choose, whether it be a republic or monarchy, but the conversation grew heated as Mellows refused to back down.

“He continued to uphold the view that it was for the people to decide,” Robbins wrote years later, still in shocked wonder. He assumed that Mellows “had not expected opposition from me but having taken the stand he would not retreat. So the talk ended in disagreement,” and not for the last time.[11]

By a quirk of fate, Mellows would end up opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty as an unacceptable compromise, while Robbins, who had denounced anything short of a Republic, accepted the agreement for something that fell short of that ideal. But such contradictions and tragedies were to be for the future.

The Search for Guns

Mellows came to trust Robbins enough to bring him in on his latest German gun-running mission. The version he had arranged with Callanan had been elaborated into three separate landings in Co. Wexford, Down and Clare. In preparation for this, Mellows was to work on a fruit-boat from New York to Montevideo, and from there take another to Spain, where a submarine would pick him up for the final leg of the journey to Germany. Thinking he was looking for assistance, Robbins volunteered his services, but Mellows at first demurred.

‘Our friends down town’, by which Mellows meant Clan na Gael, had ruled this to be a one-man job. Robbins was a little mystified at this, and wondered if Mellows had simply failed to be assertive: “It was not for me to make a comment but I thought that had Mellows pressed the need for a second it would have been conceded.”

Regardless, it was agreed between the pair that Robbins would play a part after all, by searching around the docks for some helping hands. He believed he was aiding his friend by covering for his personal deficiencies:

He was not very conversant with dockside life…In many ways I found him to be a bit of an introvert which made it very difficult for him to mix with the many different kinds of men one meets in sailors’ haunts.

(Which – considering Mellows’ past success with making friends in Fianna Éireann and the IRB, and then the Irish Volunteers, to say nothing of his exploits in escaping from England in time for the Rising, and the subsequent flight to America, the latter which saw him surviving the toils of working life on board a ship – seems an unfair statement on Robbins’ part.)

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New York docks

One point of contention was Mellows’ insistence on total secrecy, which was all well and good – until he cited Jim Larkin in particular as someone to keep in the dark. Offended, Robbins asked if this was due to Larkin being a socialist because, if so, Mellows could rule him out as well for he too was one.

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James Connolly

A distraught Mellows insisted this was not so, arguing that while he knew naught about socialism, he also had nothing against it, having read James Connolly’s Labour in Irish History and finding it much to his liking. When Robbins pressed for a reason, Mellows refused to say, only that he would divulge at a later time – which he never did.

With this disagreement pushed to the side, the two men got down to business. Robbins was to remain in New York until he received word that Mellows was en route to Spain, at which point he would return to Ireland and alert their fellow revolutionaries to the incoming weapons.

“However, the arms plan never came to anything,” Robbins admitted.[12]

John Devoy

Robbins later found a reason for Larkin being persona non grata to Clan na Gael: the temperamental ‘Lion of Labour’ had delivered a tongue-lashing to Devoy in the Gaelic American office, accusing him of snobbery in favouring the Irish Volunteers with money while ignoring the more working-class ICA members in America. Larkin may have ruled the ITGWU with an iron fist, but he was not in Ireland anymore and, in Devoy, he met his match as an autocrat.[13]

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Jim Larkin, mugshot taken in 1919

Not that Robbins spared the curmudgeon much sympathy. Although he had been sent to contact Larkin, Robbins was soon disgusted with his bilious rants and found himself much preferring the company of Devoy. He was amazed at the older man’s intelligence and how “he could foresee developments well in advance of most writers.” Devoy’s austere dedication also impressed Robbins. Instead of the money and fame that Robbins believed Devoy could have earned, he:

…preferred to travel a lonely, torturous and unpopular path for the meagre salary of twenty-five dollars per week, which he regarded as being sufficient to take care of his very simple way of life. His only regard was the advancement and, if possible, the achievement of the freedom of Ireland, and be counted as one who had given service to that cause throughout his whole life.[14]

Robbins was a witness to the extent of Devoy’s influence at a packed Clan na Gael convention in the Central Opera House. After a succession of stirring speeches about the historical fight for Irish freedom had put the audience in the appropriate mood, Devoy implored them for funds with which to carry on that same mission.

This prompted a number of delegates to leap to their feet and compete for the stage to proudly announce the amounts they personally, and the Clan clubs they represented, would be donating.

“They were almost shouting each other down in their anxiety to be heard,” wrote Robbins, awed by the memory.[15]

central-opera-house-205-east-67th-st_1_bde20fb7c8202d0c40f66570ca7ba1daOthers were less impressed by the grizzled Fenian. Sidney Czira (née Gifford, sister-in-law to Joseph Plunkett) complained that Devoy tried to separate the ‘1916 exiles’ into different states. The purported reason was to lessen the risk of police surveillance, which Czira conceded was a concern. But she attributed this policy of Devoy’s less to safety and more to his suspicions.

“He had this extraordinary obsession that there was somebody always interfering or intriguing against him,” she wrote with a sigh.[16]

But, of course, even paranoiacs have enemies. One of whom in Devoy’s case would just happen to be Czira.

Sidney Czira

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Sidney Czira (né Gifford)

About March or April 1917, Robbins received a written invitation to Czira’s apartment in Amsterdam Avenue. When he arrived, he found Mellows and other ‘1916 exiles’ also there. Czira explained the purpose of the meeting: she wanted to replace Clan na Gael, whose leadership she believed was out of touch with the struggle back in Ireland, with a new fraternity, the nucleus of which would be the ‘1916 exiles’.

After some discussion, the guests made their way out. Mellows asked Robbins what he thought. Robbins was blunt: what was the point of undermining their number one patron in a country they knew little about? The only thing this could accomplish was the hurting of their own cause.

Mellows agreed – at least, on the surface. Robbins thought that was the end of the matter – until a new organisation did indeed come into being, the Irish Progressive League.[17]

At its forefront was Czira, who threw herself into the fray of activism, as she described:

We set up a shop, the front part of which was devoted to Irish books, pamphlets, periodicals, postcards, badges and the usual propaganda material. This must have been 1918 because we had in the window a map which we used in the way that war maps were used at this time, by sticking pins with little flags to indicate the constituencies in which Sinn Féin were victorious in the election.[18]

As if this was not enough, Mellows set up a society of his own sometime later, the Irish Citizen’s Association, intended for use as a pressure group on Clan na Gael. Such behaviour would forever be a puzzle to Robbins: “In later years I often asked myself if Liam Mellows was partial to the first project and founder of another. Or was he under the influence of someone else?”

It was inexplicable to Robbins that his friend could act this way after they had agreed on the foolishness of such maverick ventures. Perhaps the answer, Robbins speculated gloomily, lay within their national psyche: “Sometimes I think the Irish have an inbuilt genius for disagreement and disunity.”[19]

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St Patrick’s Day postcard

Clan na Gael

If the Rising of 1916 had ‘changed, changed utterly’ Ireland, in the words of W.B. Yeats, then the entry of the United States into the Great War in April 1917 – on the side of Britain, no less – had a similar effect on Irish-America. Outspokenly pro-German before, Clan na Gael was forced to ask itself if keeping to its stance was worth the hostility from the rest of the country, now on the lookout for unpatriotic malcontents within. The answer, as far as Devoy and the rest of the Clan old-guard were concerned, was ‘no’.

Others like Mellows vehemently disagreed. To those who had risked life and liberty in Dublin’s streets or the fields of Galway during Easter Week, suggestions that they now enrol in the American army and fight alongside the same enemy as before were intolerable.

uncle-samThis clash between pragmatism and principles – not the last in Mellows’ life – soon boiled over into public view, such as when a Clan convention on Easter 1917, for the first anniversary of the Rising, was disrupted by audience members loudly objecting when the platform speakers urged them to enlist. So stormy was the mood that hall stewards ordered the protestors to remove their tricolour badges, which was refused.

Though Czira was not present, being at home with her two-month old baby, she heard much about it when many who were disgruntled at the stance the Clan was taking visited her apartment to discuss what should be done. Of particular concern was the agreement between the American and British authorities that the former could conscript British nationals, among which the Irish who were not American citizens had been classified.

In a series of open-air meetings protesting against enlistment, Mellows took the lead, mixing impassioned oratory with cutting humour. With reference to the poster ‘What did you do in the Great War, Daddy?’ that was plastered about the city, Mellows suggested that an answer should be: “I was tracking around New York the Irish who were trying to obtain their liberty.”

220px-daddy2c_what_did_you_do_in_the_great_war3fDispleased at this unseemly independence, the Clan na Gael Executive gave Mellows a stark choice: speak no more at such meetings or forget about his Gaelic American job. The man who had disbanded the Galway Volunteers in the face of a hopeless situation only with great reluctance was not going to back down now, and the Clan soon learnt about the sort of enemy its former golden boy could be.

When the first day of a Clan gathering in New York in 1918 passed without any speakers making reference to the ‘German Plot’ – over which a number of arrests had been made in Ireland on allegations of German collusion – there was considerable outrage in the hall. That none of the ‘1916 exiles’ were among those on stage was another cause for resentment.

The second day of the convention came and still not a word was said about the arrests, leading to shouts for Mellows, who was on the premises, to be allowed to speak. Taken to a backroom, Mellows – as he told Czira afterwards – was accused by the Clan bigwigs of being behind the upheaval, which he denied.

As a small compromise, and in the hope of diffusing the tension, Mellows would be allowed on the platform to bow before the audience, but on no condition was he to speak. Of course, as soon as he was on stage, he denounced the arrests and, for added effect, proposed a resolution of protest.

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Liam Mellows speaking at Bodenstown, 1922

“American papers on the following day commented that although the proceedings were very dull on the first day, they were certainly very lively on the second,” Czira commented dryly.[20]

John Devoy

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John Devoy

At least relations between Mellows and Devoy remained cordial, if lacking the same warmth as before. “I fear for the Irish movement in America when the Old Man dies,” Mellows told Robbins in the belief that there was no one who could fill Devoy’s shoes. It was a sentiment he would repeat on numerous occasions, according to Robbins.

Similarly, Devoy continued to hold Mellows in high regard, however personally he took their widening estrangement. A rumour that he had financially neglected Mellows to the point of starvation wounded him, as did the other man’s silence on the issue, which was taken by many to mean an affirmation.

“You know how much I loved Mellows,” he said to Robbins, who had managed to stay on good terms with both. “I loved him as if he had been my own son.”

He said this in the Shelbourne Hotel during his visit to Dublin in 1924. Mellows had been dead for almost two years, put before a firing-squad of his fellow countrymen, but the memory of his failure – or refusal – to dispel the whispers of ill-treatment lingered on as a knife in the old man’s gut.[21]

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John Devoy being greeted by a guard of honour during his visit to Dublin, 1924

Mellows caught something of the complexity of their relationship in a letter to Nora Connolly, dated to September 1919:

I broke completely with the Gang. Lots of things happened – more than I can write about and more than was known even among friends. Threatened with expulsion from everything. Told them to do it. They backed down. Resigned from the office at the same time. Was begged to remain by Uncle. Did so.

That Devoy was ‘Uncle’ was telling in the familial choice of word. Despite Mellows agreeing to remain with the Gaelic American, he complained of a “campaign of the most vile and conscious slander” against him.[22]

1926909_10202332464346455_20930640_nThis toing-and-froing, akin to a fraying marriage, could not last indefinitely. Mellows had been staying in the apartment of Patrick Kirwan, the brother of a leading Irish Volunteer in Wexford, where Mellows’ mother hailed from. Upon his first meeting with Mellows, Kirwan was delighted to learn that they knew many of the same people from Wexford.

The Kirwan home of 73 West 96th Street became a centre for him and his friends. The Kirwans did not seem to mind the constant flow of guests, taking care to make each of them welcome, and Mellows was close enough to the family to stand as godfather to their third son.

Father Magennis

After two years of this cosy arrangement, Mellows abruptly left in mid-1919 without warning. The Kirwans found that he had been moving his books out in batches without telling them until the last day. It was only later that they learnt he had relocated to Manhattan’s East Side, the Carmelite School on East 28th Street, where he was employed as an Irish language teacher, having abandoned the Gaelic American for good.[23]

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Father Magennis

The head of the monastery, Father Peter Magennis, had long been a source of aid for the ‘1916 exiles’. When Czira found it impossible to send letters back home due to the strict censorship, Magennis delivered her correspondence, and that of many others, while he was over in Ireland.[24]

After Mellows collapsed at his first replacement job as a labourer, it was Magennis who had given him the teaching post, a role more suited to his education. His health, until then in a perilous state, began to mend.[25]

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Mary Ward, who nursed Mellows in New York (and later married Frank Robbins)

Mellows was, according to Robbins, “subject to spells of despondency and was inclined to neglect himself.” When two female friends learnt of his plight, they visited him in the East Side and succeeded in nursing him back to health. It was for this bleak period that Devoy was blamed for starving him. It was an unjust accusation to Robbins’s mind, and Mellows seemed to allude to this misconception in a story he told Czira.[26]

When he was young and sick in bed, he had overheard the doctor attribute his state to malnutrition. Thinking someone was blaming his mother for not feeding him properly, an enraged Mellows tried to rise out of bed and attack the doctor. Still, as Devoy bemoaned to Robbins, Mellows made no effort to correct the impression.[27]

Patrick McCartan

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Patrick McCartan

Mellows was still on amiable terms with Devoy when, in mid-1917, Dr Patrick McCartan came to New York and – in keeping with the new tradition for Irish revolutionaries on arrival – visited the Gaelic American offices. Robbins were there with Devoy when Mellows introduced him to the newcomer.[28]

Much like Mellows and Robbins, the thirty-eight year old McCartan had already had a colourful career as an Irish freedom fighter. He had spent time before in America, working as a barman in Philadelphia, where he made the acquaintance of Joseph McGarrity, the leading Clan official in the city.

By 1905, McCartan had returned to Ireland, buoyed by a loan from McGarrity to pursue a medical career, and also to encourage a growth of radical politics in his native Tyrone, a task he fulfilled with enough vigour to be ‘honoured’ in a police report with the accolade of being “the most dangerous man in the county.”

But he was evidently not dangerous enough for some. Despite joining the IRB Supreme Council in July 1915, McCartan was among those side-lined in the planning of the Easter Rising. When the big event came, McCartan was as lost as anyone, and ended Tyrone’s involvement by sending its Volunteers home unbloodied.[29]

After disappearing from the county for some months, McCartan re-emerged in Tyrone at the end of 1916 and was arrested in February 1917, being deported to England along with a number of others. Three months later, he came back to Ireland in time to campaign for Sinn Féin in the South Longford by-election.

“Nothing further was known of his movements until it was announced that he had arrived in America, where he had succeeded in reaching by working his passage as an ordinary seaman,” reported the Irish Times.[30]

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A Sinn Féin election poster for Patrick McCartan, 1918

Before McCartan had left Ireland, it was decided by the IRB leadership that he would join Mellows on his much-anticipated mission to Germany. Mellows was to handle the purchase of arms while McCartan tended to the political aspect. The duo were allocated some leeway in their plans, depending on circumstances, as McCartan put it:

Mellows and I were left free to do what we thought best on reaching Germany but one or both of us was to accompany the war material, to the arranged spot, on a fixed date. If we could get more than one consignment, either of us was to remain behind to escort the second cargo. Mellows and I were delighted with this plan, for which the Clan undertook to make the arrangements.[31]

There was just one snag: McCartan was an idiot.

Lost and Found

While he talked with the other three in the Gaelic American offices, the subject arose of a certain document that McCartan had left behind on the ship that had brought him over three days earlier. It was a linen document, making a case for Irish independence, addressed to the US President and to Congress, and bearing the signatures of twenty-six individuals from the 1916 Rising. The linen had been specially prepared and starched so that the words could be written in indelible ink, before washed back into a pliable state and then sewn into the lining of McCartan’s waistcoat.

It seemed the perfect cover – until McCartan feared he would be searched on entry to New York. So he left the document on board.

Quite what he had intended to do then was unclear, as was the importance of the document, for during the conversation with the other three, McCartan could not make up his mind on whether it was worth retrieving. Exasperated, Robbins:

…drew Mellows aside and asked him to find out from the doctor if, in fact, the document was important. If it was I undertook to try and obtain it from aboad ship.

When Mellows asked how he intended to do this, Robbins said he would bluff his way through by pretending to be looking for a job. McCartan looked relieved at this plan of action, and so he, Mellows and Robbins left Devoy and went to the West Side where the ships were berthed. Deciding that fortune favours the bold, Robbins pressed ahead:

At the entrance to the docks I walked very smartly in without taking any notice of the guard. As I walked on I heard a voice shout “Halt” but paid no attention. Next there was a rush of feet, a few swear words and I was asked did I want a so-and-so bayonet into me.

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Frank Robbins

Robbins did not. All wide-eyed innocence, he turned to the furious guard, who demanded to see his pass. Robbins tried feigning ignorance as to why a humble job-seeker like him would need such a thing, but when that made no headway with the other man, he spun a sympathy story about how he had missed his ship out due to drink and was in desperate need of another job.

Moved by this tale of woe, but not enough to give way, the watchman asked Robbins if he knew the bosun and, if so, whether he could vouch for him. Robbins confidently said he did but, when the guard left to find the bosun, he knew that the jig was up and retreated to where Mellows and McCartan were waiting.

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Joseph McGarrity

That was not the end of the missing document, for it finally appeared in the possession of Joseph McGarrity. McCartan had visited his old friend in Philadelphia immediately after landing in New York, during which he might have handed the document to him. If so, that was a severe breach of protocol, given that Devoy was the point-man in America for the IRB.

Still, Robbins was not entirely convinced by this explanation:

Having been present at the discussions…with Devoy, Mellows and himself, I formed the opinion that McCartan was genuinely concerned about leaving the document on the ship, and that it was afterwards rescued by contacts made by Devoy.

Another version of how Devoy retrieved the item was by demanding it in person from McGarrity, who instantly surrendered it. When Clan na Gael ruptured into hostile factions, McGaritty and McCartan would side with the anti-Devoy camp, suggesting that it was not coincidental that McCartan gave the presidential letter to McGarrity over Devoy. If so, then Devoy was being far from unreasonable in seeing plots against his authority.

As for the declaration, it was eventually given to President Wilson, though not on the original linen.

Address
The address to President Wilson and Congress

“Frank, McCartan would never make a good revolutionary and do you know why?” Devoy asked Robbins one day in the office. When his companion replied he did not, Devoy explained: “Because he can never make up his mind and I attribute that weakness to the fact that he smokes too many cigarettes.”[32]

Robbins took a similarly dim view of the newcomer, albeit for reasons other than a penchant for tobacco, believing him to be a bad influence on Mellows. When Mellows shocked Robbins by questioning the rightness of the Easter Rising, and his accusations that the IRB Supreme Council had been usurped, Robbins heard the echo of McCartan’s words in Mellows’, and blamed the Tyrone native for filling his friend’s head with such doubts.[33]

In time, Mellows would be similarly unimpressed with McCartan and his unreliability. McCartan “was the only man I could say that Mellows was even bitter against,” recalled Peadar O’Donnell.[34]

Beekman Place

For the moment, however, Mellows and McCartan worked closely together, with both becoming regular visitors to Czira’s apartment at Beekman Place. When she happened to mention that a German friend of hers, Lucie Haslau, had told her that she had seen off some members of the German embassy, whose time in America were over due to the wartime severance of diplomatic relations, McCartan was surprised. He had been told by Devoy that there were no ships leaving the States.

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Ocean liner

The next morning, McCartan returned with Mellows in tow. Mellows asked Czira if her German friend knew whether it would be possible for them to take the same route out. That Mellows had come at an unusually early hour indicates how excited – and impatient – he was.

(Mellows kept a loose schedule in general, to the point of being a night-owl. He would think nothing of dropping by Beekman Place, regardless of the hour. Czira remembered how on one occasion Mellows was leaving in the morning and bade the milkman ‘Goodnight’.)

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Liam Mellows

When Czira returned with Haslau’s answer in the affirmative, Mellows and McCartan asked to be put in touch with her, which Czira did. She urged them not to tell any of the Clan elders like Devoy, but McCartan replied it would not be fair to keep the ‘Old Man’ in the dark.

She also questioned the involvement of a Dr von Recklinghausen, a friend of Haslau’s, who handled German propaganda in the States. Czira urged Mellows against bringing him to their gatherings at her apartment, fearing the German was too obvious a target for police surveillance, but he assured her he would be careful not to be seen in von Recklinghausen’s company. She was further alarmed when Mellows took to meeting von Recklinghausen in Haslau’s flat at the other end of the terrace from hers.[35]

For once, she and Devoy were in complete agreement. He warned McCartan that Haslau’s house was under constant watch by the authorities, but the conspirators continued to meet there regardless. Given that Devoy had already been proved wrong about the lack of ships leaving America, there seemed little reason to heed his caution.[36]

Setting in Motion

When Callanan answered Mellows’ summons to see him in New York after Sunday Mass, he found him with several others, including Robbins. Mellows, he noted, appeared distraught. When asked the reason, Mellows, pent-up for too long, laid his cards on the table.

Clan na Gael could no longer be relied on, he said, with the exception of a few allies such as McGarrity in Philadelphia. With no further hope of smuggling arms from America, they were wasting their time here. The only thing left to do was for them to go back to Ireland, while Mellows intended to reach Germany to find aid there.

Callanan and another man present, Donal O’Hannigan, agreed to return home as soon as possible. Meeting Callanan later in the week, Mellows told him that he had a good chance of making it to Germany via a Belgian relief ship that was waiting by the docks. From Belgium, Mellows explained, he could go to Holland and then onwards to his destination.[37]

Mellows explained this plan to Devoy, with McCartan and O’Hannigan present, in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That he did so showed that relations between him and Devoy had not yet completely broken down. Indeed, the old Fenian had been busy on Mellows’ behalf, cabling Germany to obtain the password – the not overly imaginative ‘Berlin’ – the others were to use when communicating with German intelligence. When Mellows, McCartan and O’Hannigan were leaving the hotel together, they noticed four men shadowing them, whom they assumed were police agents.[38]

New York City Exteriors And Landmarks
The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York

O’Hannigan and Callanan were able to obtain their seamen’s papers without much fuss. The same could not be said for Mellows and McCartan, thanks to the latter’s chronic incompetence.

When the pair went to the Shipping Board, as Mellows related to Robbins, they were questioned about the previous vessels on which they had worked. Which was only to be expected, this being standard practice, but McCartan managed to give the wrong name of his supposed last ship, answering instead with what his seaman’s book said was his second last. He also guessed incorrectly when asked if he had worked as a seaman or a fireman.

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(Left to right) Patrick McCartan and Liam Mellows

The official excused himself for a couple of minutes. When he returned, he stamped their books as being in order. All seemed as it should – except that from then on, Mellows was to complain about a feeling of being constantly monitored. His watchers were less than subtle, such as when the letter box for the Kirwans’ flat – where Mellows was then still living – was broken apart and the opened letters discarded in the hallway, or the stove added to the street corner across from the Kirwans’ apartment to keep the policemen waiting there warm at night.[39]

Entombed

Czira was surprised when Mellows failed to arrive one evening as he usually did. The next day, with rumours swirling of Mellows’ arrest, she was visited by another of the exiles, a Tipperary man called Michael O’Callaghan. Usually so cheerful, O’Callaghan merely sat there in gloomy silence.

Knowing his volatile reputation – O’Callaghan had fled Ireland after shooting two policeman dead – Czira was afraid to ask anything about Mellows. When O’Callaghan finally left for the night, it was much to her relief. He was arrested almost immediately after, as Czira heard:

He was followed by an American detective and was growing more and more irritated as he walked through the streets, wondering over the fate of Mellows, he suddenly saw in front of him in a shop window a large picture of John Mitchel, grandson of the patriot, who was then running for Mayor of New York and who was an out and out Britisher. (I think there was some pro-British sentiment on the poster.)

This was the last straw as far as O’Callaghan was concerned, and he went up and smashed the window. He was promptly arrested.

When Czira went to Haslau’s flat, she was told by her German friend that she had heard nothing about von Recklinghausen since he and Mellows departed from her house together in the early hours. Haslau then telephoned von Recklinghausen’s apartment, only to be curtly informed by the landlady that not only was he not there, he was not expected back anytime soon.

For he and Mellows had been detained together after leaving Haslau. McCartan was picked up later by the Canadian authorities in Halifax where he was waiting for his outbound ship to be repaired.[40]

While visiting Mellows in Tombs Prison, Robbins was shocked at the noise and confusion. He was led by a warden along a line of half-open cages, to the one where Mellows was waiting with something urgent to say. At first they tried talking in Irish but the din, combined with Robbins’ imperfect grasp of the language, meant that the two men had to switch to English. Even then, the pair had to shout at each other over the babel of voices to understand the little they could.

Robbins left Tombs rather shaken: “It certainly was an experience never to be forgotten.”

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The Tombs, New York

Beforehand, while on his way to the prison, Robbins had broken the news of the arrests to Mellows’ friends, such as Nora Connolly, as well as stopping by the Gaelic American offices. Devoy was out of town, so Robbins left a message for him. He did not think anything in particular of Devoy’s absence.

Connolly and another friend, Margaret Skinner, saw Mellows in Tombs later that day and, being more fluent in Irish than Robbins, they were able to discern what Mellows wanted them to know. They then went to the Kirwan house and found behind a picture in the dining-room some papers that the detectives had missed in their search.[41]

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Margaret Skinner

‘A Sinn Fein Rebellion’

Nonetheless, the authorities were able to secure a significant cache of paperwork, according to the Irish Times:

A considerable amount of literature and papers, interesting to the American Government, were taken in the raid on Mellowes’s [alternative spelling] and Von Recklinghausen’s premises, but it will be some time before the ramifications of the plot can be thoroughly exposed.

Nonetheless, it was speculated by the New York Times “that the arrests of Mellows and Von Recklinghausen have frustrated a Sinn Fein rebellion, which was planned for next Easter, on the anniversary of the Dublin rebellion.” Whether or not Mellows and his colleagues had had anything quite as ambitious as that in mind is debatable, though the possibility must have been a tempting one.

Also noted was how:

Recklinghausen had been mentioned as an envoy whom Count Bernstorff left here. He is also associated with a group of Turks.[42]

Which made sense, given how Turkey was allied to Germany. According to Czira, however, this supposed Turkish connection came due to a misunderstanding, as a vice-consul for Turkey was living in the flat above her. This entirely innocent diplomat “had made a very bad calculation when he moved into Beehan Place, thinking this was a nice quiet spot!”

Czira, meanwhile, was doing her best, along with Connolly, to help their imprisoned friend. Connolly approached some of the leading Clan na Gael members for help with the bail money, only to be refused. When the two women tried Barney Murphy, the owner of a successful saloon, he listened sympathetically. He was willing to help, he said to them, though he would first have to discuss it with others.

After a couple of days we read in the New York papers that at last somebody put up bail and there was a slightly sarcastic reference to the delay and the unknown person who had come forward.

Judge Cohalan
Judge Cohalan

Murphy, the ‘unknown person’ in question, later told Czira that when he had talked with Judge Daniel Cohalan, a prominent Irish-American politician who was close to Devoy, Cohalan warned him not to get mixed up in ‘this German plot’. Nonetheless, Murphy went ahead and put up the bail money for both Mellows and McCartan, taking care to keep his involvement a secret.[43]

‘Hard, Wretched Days’

Mellows’ case lingered on in legal limbo. Every time he appeared in court, his bail was continued and the case adjourned. With no end in sight by early 1918, Robbins theorised to him that proceedings were being deliberately prolonged by the American Government until the end of the European War, so that it would avoid having to either imprison or deport him, and risk angering its Irish citizens.[44]

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Left to right: Harry Boland, Liam Mellows, Éamon de Valera, John Devoy (seated), Patrick McCartan and Diarmuid Lynch, in New York, 1919

The strain wore on his nerves. America was becoming for him a “mild form of purgatory,” he confessed to a friend in August 1918. The plight of Catherine Davis, “a poor Galway woman”, could easily apply to him. He had met her in a New York hospital at her request. Suffering from a heart ailment, she was desperate to hear about her homeland, and her one desire, as Mellows recounted in a letter in January 1919, was to die there. “Her delight was obvious when I answered her salutation in Irish and told her I knew her birthplace well.”

Sometime later, when hearing that Davis was on her deathbed:

[I] called at the hospital…Poor soul! Her one earthly wish will never be gratified. Her days, nay, her very hours are numbered. She didn’t recognise me at first, and then, when she did, was unable to speak: [she] simply held my two hands and repeated time after time, “don’t go.” I stayed with her for about an hour and had to tear myself away. She will never see Ireland again and her heart is broken.

It was a wretched tale that countless immigrants, himself included, could relate to all too well: “To eat their hearts out in exile and to die in the land of the stranger with their thoughts on the land of their love.”[45]

The emotional scars were to stay with him. Even after years had passed, with much that had happened, as Mellows and his companions in the Four Courts awaited the assault by their erstwhile comrades, “he spoke of hard, wretched days in the United States,” wrote Ernie O’Malley.[46]

Mellows would stay Stateside until returning to Ireland in mid-1920 to take up his role in the war against Britain. In the meantime, he remained a fixture on the Irish-American scene, however little he liked it. New York had become a “maelstrom of bitterness and perversity,” where “prejudice is rampant – fierce – unbelievable.”[47]

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Harry Boland

Still, despite his woes, Mellows never entirely lost his impish sense of humour. Michael Collins would tell a story, one which tickled him considerably, of a performance Mellows delivered during Éamon de Valera’s visit to the United States in 1919. At a large fund-raiser, after some words from de Valera, Devoy, McCartan and Harry Boland, Mellows gave a parody of the speakers before him.

“We collected five hundred thousand pounds for the loan in Dublin. We did. Be Jaysus, we did,” Mellows said in imitation of Boland. He then had to escape the enraged others through a fire escape.[48]

To be continued in: Rebel Operative: Liam Mellows Against Britain, Against the Treaty, 1920-2 (Part V)

References

[1] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 405), pp. 2-6

[2] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[3] Ibid, p. 8

[4] Ibid, p. 9

[5] Ibid, p.8

[6] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), pp. 44

[7] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), p. 173

[8] Ibid, pp. 94-5, 153-4

[9] Ibid, p. 160-1

[10] Ibid, pp. 174-5

[11] Ibid, p. 179

[12] Ibid, pp. 167, 170

[13] Robbins, Frank (BMH / WS 585), p. 125

[14] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 160, 165

[15] Ibid, p. 161

[16] Czira, Sidney (BMH / WS 909), p. 36

[17] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 191-2

[18] Czira, p. 40

[19] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 192

[20] Czira, pp. 37-41

[21] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 193

[22] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 16

[23] Robbins, pp.176-7

[24] Czira, pp. 36-7

[25] Ibid, pp. 39-40

[26] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 177

[27] Ibid ; Czira, p. 40

[28] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 170

[29] 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), pp. 46-7

[30] Irish Times, 03/11/1917

[31] McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932), p. 16

[32] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 170-3

[33] Ibid, pp. 174, 193

[34] O’Malley, The Men Will Talk To Me, p. 23

[35] Czira, pp. 41-3

[36] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 180

[37] Callanan, p. 11

[38] O’Hannigan, Donal (BMH / WS 161), pp. 32-3

[39] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 180

[40] Czira, pp. 43-5

[41] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, pp. 180-1

[42] Irish Times, 03/11/1917

[43] Czira, pp. 44-6

[44] Robbins, Under the Starry Plough, p. 181

[45] Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), p. 221

[46] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 116

[47] Nelson, p. 221

[48] Broy, Eamon (BMH / WS 1285), pp. 29-30

Bibliography

Books

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

McCartan, Patrick. With De Valera in America (Dublin: Fitzpatrick Ltd., 1932)

Nelson, Bruce. Irish Nationalists and the Making of the Irish Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)

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. 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

Callanan, Patrick, WS 405

Czira, Sidney, WS 909

Broy, Eamon, WS 1285

O’Hannigan, Donal, WS 161

Robbins, Frank, WS 585

White, Alfred, WS 1207

Newspaper

Irish Times

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Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)

A continuation from: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

A Black Outlook

For Liam Mellows, failure on Easter Week 1916 was not an option. While Galway had had a late start on the Tuesday, the Irish Volunteers there having dispersed the day before due to the confusion over orders, reports that their compatriots in Dublin had gone ahead in rebellion spurred them into doing their part after all.

After some skirmishes with the police, Mellows had led his forces away from the impending British counter-attack, taking shelter in Limepark House. It was no more than a temporary respite, for the Volunteers fully intended to continue the struggle – that is, until the arrival of a pair of priests on Friday evening, bringing word that Dublin had surrendered – erroneously so, but close enough, given the battered state of the city – forced the Galway officers to face the unpalatable reality that their localised insurrection stood alone.[1]

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Officers in the Galway Volunteers

After months of preparation, the Rising in Galway had barely last five days. For Alf Monahan, one of Mellows’ right-hand men, the disappointment was made all the more crushing by how he had dared to believe:

Although we had not any hopes of doing anything big when we went out…our hopes began to brighten during the week when we heard the guns booming in Galway Bay, and the rumours of Dublin were heartening too – up to Friday night. Certainly the outlook appeared black on Saturday morning.

It seemed too much like history repeating itself, with the future balefully uncertain. “England had won again and no one knew what was in store,” Monahan lamented. He and Mellows urged for them to fight on, but the other officers had already made up their minds. All that was left to do was break the news to the rest of the men.[2]

A whistle-blast summoned the Volunteers to the front of Limepark House, where Mellows and Father Thomas Fahy were waiting on the front step. With Mellows standing silently by, the clergyman addressed the assembled ranks, informing them that their position was hopeless.

Instead of a fruitless sacrifice, he continued, they should instead disband and wait for a better time in which to offer the country their services.[3]

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Irish Volunteers, standing to attention

Confronted with such bald words, the Volunteers took heed and prepared to return to their homes. But not Mellows, who had decided to survive as best he could on the run. Joining him in this venture were Monahan and another of his leading officers, Frank Hynes from Athenry.

Mellows bore the rest of his short-lived army no ill will, shaking the hands of the men in turn as he bade them farewell. “We were very brónach [sad] in parting with the leaders who had been with us, training and advising us for the Rising,” remembered one man:

We knew that neither Mellows nor Monahan did not like to give the order to disband and I am sure they knew that the men would have followed them to the bitter end, but as the priests who had come there, had advised against further bloodshed and as Mellows and Monahan considered themselves responsible for all our lives, had to make a decision which they hated to do.[4]

When Mellows, Monahan and Hynes were left alone outside a now deserted Limepark House, there was nothing left to do but set off southwards. They made for an unusual little band – a Wexford man reared in Dublin (Mellows), a Belfast native (Monahan) and a local man (Hynes), now cast out into wilds of Galway, trusting in nothing but luck, country charity and their own wits.

Spreading Out of Nothing

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Liam Mellows

Help came in a number of sympathetic houses along the way. The first of such boltholes was the Howley farm, owned by a friend of Mellows’ whose son, Peter Howley, had only just left Limepark like the rest of the Irish Volunteers. Howley Senior chatted with Mellows as the trio were served refreshments. Only hours had passed since the close of the Rising, and Mellows was left unsure on what to do next, until Peter advised for him and his two companions to proceed to the Corless house and remain there until he picked them up at nightfall.

This was agreed on, and Mellows, Hynes and Monahan took their leave of the Howleys at around 7 am, on the Saturday morning. From then on, it would be essential to remain one step ahead of the inevitable pursuit by the authorities.[5]

The brothers Patsy and Martin Corless, a pair of elderly bachelors who lived together, quickly made the group welcome with food, as well as providing the runaways the chance for some desperately needed sleep. This they did for a full fourteen hours while Patsy made arrangements for another home, that of William Blanche. Peter Howley failed to appear but, as there was no time to delay, the three moved on regardless.

They were warmly greeted by Mr and Mrs Blanche. The former in particular could relate to their plight, being a fellow Volunteer despite his advanced years and thus vulnerable to arrest himself without distinction as to whether or not he had been part of the Rising. As well as refuge, the Blanche house provided the chance for Mellows to overhear some flattering talk, as Monahan remembered:

A girl visitor called to see Mrs Blanche and she was bursting with news and the three rebels in the bedroom had the pleasure of hearing this young lady’s first-hand information about Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], what he had done and what he intended to do in the future.

It is marvellous how quickly rumours grow out of nothing and spread all over the country. This young lady told Mrs Blanche that Liam Mellowes was escaping out of the country disguised as a girl. “You know,” she added, “Mellowes is very goodlooking.”

It was only with effort that the three men stifled their laughter.

Less gratifying was what was overheard from another caller who castigated Mellows as a coward and a troublemaker. The temptation for Mellows to appear before him like a ghost at a feast was almost irresistible.[6]

Imperial Response

Their foes, meanwhile, were not idle. Peter Howley was about to leave for the Corless’ house as planned, when he found his own surrounded by about sixty British soldiers and policemen from the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Peter was arrested, along with two of his brothers, their roles in the Volunteers making them obvious suspects.

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RIC constables

The Crown forces brought the Howley boys along with them as they drove on in a small fleet of twelve armoured cars towards Limepark House. Seeing that the building was surrounded by thick shrubbery, making it an ideal place to defend, the soldiers and RIC men marched the three brothers ahead as human shields while they advanced in battle formation, firing off a few shots before they found the house to be empty.

All that was left was were discarded items such as pikes, bandoliers, detonators and bombs, as well as supplies of bacon, beef and eggs, which were eagerly consumed by the hungry men.  Pieces of linotype metal were also found, apparently to be melted down for more bullets. That so much had been abandoned at Limepark spoke at the haste in which the previous occupants had vacated.

Limepark
Limepark House today

Searching further, the patrol spotted two men over in a field. When called to halt, one of the pair ran, earning himself a few shots in his direction, while the other stayed rooted to the ground. He was, upon further inspection, merely a farmer who had been going about his business.

The RIC-military squad retired to their barracks with their prisoners. The Howley brothers were transferred to the military barracks in Galway town but revealed nothing about their recent guests, who were unaware of the close call they had had.

A more fruitful discovery for the RIC was of their five colleagues who had been taken prisoner during the week. Constables Manning, Malone, Walsh, Donovan and McDermott had walked all the way from Limepark to Kilcolgan village, but were less than useful in what they could tell, explaining that they had been guarded by strangers in a dark room, after being marched for miles and consequently losing all sense of direction. Recognising any of their captors would be out of the question. They had escaped, the five explained, when their guards had neglected to watch them, allowing them to creep away.[7]

This last point would have been a relief to the Irish Volunteers. One of Mellows’ arguments to Father Fahy against disbanding was that the POWs would be able to identify his men. Fahy had consulted with the RIC captives, who agreed to give no such information in return for freedom. The policemen had evidently been true to their word.[8]

The British authorities were, for the moment, largely ignorant about the whereabouts of Mellows or even that the uprising was already over. As far as it knew, the insurgents remained at large as a cohesive force. “It was estimated that the strength of the Volunteers, who had retired in a south-westerly direction, was about 500,” reported the Connacht Tribune.[9]

Rumours that some of the remaining rebels had retired to Island Eddy, a few miles off the Galway coast, prompted a search there. When British soldiers were investigating the island, the rising tide caught them by surprise, submerging their boats and trapping them in caves. Disaster was averted when a fishing smack saw their distress signals and sent a boat to rescue the fifty men from drowning. It was not the most dignified of moments in military history.[10]

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Island Eddy

Windy Hill

The day after resting at the Blanches’, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes were taken by William Blanche to an old cattle-shed on Corr na Gaithe, or ‘Windy Hill’, owned by William Hood. It was an apt name as its occupants quickly discovered but they bravely strove to get used to it, as they tried to with the rain dripping through the inadequately thatched roof or the mice who scurried in their multitudes from the frequently damp straw, over the sleeping men at night. Lighting a fire for warmth, and risking the smoke being visible for miles around, was out of the question, as was leaving the shed, even to stretch their legs.[11]

Some small relief was provided by the intrepid Blanche. On the run himself, he would hide in the furze during the day before venturing up the windy hill at night to provide the other three with whatever food he could get. Sometimes it would be a jam-jar of boiled cabbage, and on other occasions the meal was nothing but potatoes, but something was better than nothing, and the diners wolfed down whatever came, knowing that they would have to wait until the following night for anything else.

Not so obliging was the owner of the shed. Hood had not been informed beforehand about his new guests and received a shock upon discovering them. Nervous that they would be found by the authorities on his property and drag him into their troubles, Hood would visit every evening to warn of an imminent search by soldiers or policemen, only to return the next morning to find his guests inconveniently still present.

As Hynes recalled, in words laced with contempt even years later: “A few suggestions he made to us gave us to understand that if he could get us out of his shed he didn’t care what happened to us and he had not the courage to inform on us.”[12]

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Galway mountains

Such warnings were not entirely the products of a frustrated host. Blanche came one night with word of an approaching RIC patrol, but that it would be better to stay put until more was known. As foretold, a police squad appeared at the foot of the hill, but the flooded footpath from the rain before kept them at bay like a moat.

“Peelers are like cats,” Blanche said sagely, “they don’t like to wet their feet.”[13]

Moving Out

The three fugitives could not rely on rain and luck indefinitely, particularly not in lodgings as loathsome as that cattle-shed. After four days, they agreed it was time to move. They stopped by the Blanche house, where Mrs Blanche fed and housed them for the night before giving them a haversack full of food for the road ahead.

Mellows had told them of an uncle he had in Scariff, Co. Clare, and with no other plan in mind, the trio struck south in that direction. They kept walking until reaching a wide river, being lucky enough to find the only bridge for miles. Eschewing roads and open spaces, they entered some woods where they had another bit of good fortune in chancing on a stream which provided the chance of a wash, the first for a fortnight.

The rest of the day was spent pouring over the map Mellows had brought for the best way to Scariff. They had finished the last of the bread in Mrs Blanche’s haversack and, after reciting the rosary in Irish, the trio took the plunge and started out across some highlands.

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Liam Mellows (right) with friend

Night fell and the men found themselves tripping over roots and potholes. Mellows had an electric torch but that was soon broken and useless. A road was chanced upon but the men were unable to decide if it was one of the routes marked on their map. Seeing some cottages along the road, Monahan decided to inquire for directions.

The owner of the first house offered to walk the travellers in the right direction. When Mellows told him who they were and why they were on the road at night in the first place, the man said in a thick Clare accent: “Oh, holy smoke, sure your lives aren’t worth a thraneen. The soldiers are searching the country everywhere and if they come across you, they’ll shoot you.”

As it turned out, their cheerful guide led the three runaways to the wrong path. A generous soul, Hynes was to interpret this as deliberate in case they were caught while exposed on the public road.

After the Clare man had left them, the trio reached a crossroads and saw in the dark the shape of something lurking nearby. Mellows whipped out his revolver and crept over but soon returned, exasperated.

“Damnit,” he said, “it is only an old ass.”

“Well,” quipped Monahan, “he can be thankful for once in his life for being an ass instead of a peeler.”[14]

‘Many are Cold…’

Leaving the crossroads, they trudged uphill, through the drizzle. Weak with hunger after finishing the last of Mrs Blanche’s bread, they resorted to dragging themselves up on their hands and knees, stopping to rest between two big square rocks, the only shelter in sight. By then, they were so exhausted that they fell asleep on the ground, waking two hours later, sore all over their bodies.

“How do you feel?” Mellows asked.

“Rotten,” Hynes replied. “I am shivering with cold.”

Mellows could at least see the funny side. “Remember,” he said, parodying Matthew 22:14, “many are cold but few are frozen.”

Hynes coyly refrained from recording in his later account where he had told Mellows to go, only that it was not a cold place.

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Clare mountains

At least the rain had cleared by the time morning broke. Studying the map, they found that their path was leading them away from their destination of Scariff. The one they wanted was three miles away, a daunting distance for weary men on empty stomachs.

Rummaging through his bag for any spare crumbs, Hynes found nothing more than a sole potato. Even that was better than nothing but, as he divided it three-ways, the traitorous vegetable revealed itself to be rotten in its core.

Hynes had had enough.

“Come on, lads,” he called to the other two, desperation turning into bravado. “I’m going to get breakfast if I were to shoot my way to it.”

Striking out, they came across salvation in the form of a farmhouse by the road. Venturing ahead, Hynes peered through the open door to a sight both exquisite and close to unbearable:

The table was laid for breakfast and I feasted my eyes on a most beautiful home-made cake about 15″ in diameter and 12″ high. I had to exercise all my will power to refrain the savage desire to go and grab that cake and hop it.

Instead, he asked the young woman by the hearth-fire for a cup of tea for him and his companions. She immediately went to work at providing some old-fashioned country hospitality, which included considerably more than tea:

That cake that I mentioned was a feed for six men, but by the time that we had devoured two blue duck eggs each and our share of the cake I doubt if there was enough left to give the man of the house his breakfast, who by the way came in as we were eating, and the only thing that troubled him was that we would kill ourselves eating.[15]

The travellers offered payment for the food, but the woman stoutly rebuffed them. “What did ye get but a cup of tea?” she said.

When it was time to go, the couple waved their guests off, wishing them godspeed. The man of the house had given them directions to Scariff, showing not the least bit of curiosity when asked for a short cut across the mountains, despite the impracticalities of such rough terrain.

“But he was a Clareman, and Claremen never wonder at anything,” explained Monahan.

Leaving the road, the fugitives made their way into some bogland. Heavy with food, they decided to sleep out the heat of the day and continue on after dark. After finding a patch of dry ground, on which they made impromptu bedding out of heather, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes fell soundly asleep.

The sensation of something soft and wet on his face awoke Monahan. He found himself staring into the mournful brown eyes of the pointer dog that was working its tongue on him. Sitting up, Monahan saw that Hynes was on his knees, saying his prayers with his hand ominously tucked in the pocket of his overcoat.[16]

The Royal Commission

As he reviewed the state of West Galway in May for his monthly report, County Inspector Rutledge noted how the public mood in Galway town, Gort and Tuam was “sullen and unsatisfactory”. That things were not worse were due to, in the RIC Inspector’s professional opinion, the imposition of martial law, backed by the thousand soldiers camped in Cranmore.

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British soldiers posing in Dublin with a captured republican flag

As far as Rutledge was concerned, he and his employers in Dublin Castle had had a lucky escape:

It is pretty plain now that the rebellion was precipitated and if it had been deferred until later when all was ready it would not have been confined to the Districts of Galway and Gort but would have embraced the whole County and we could not have held it.

His counterpart for East Galway, County Inspector Clayton, was not quite so alarmist. Nonetheless, he also reported on the “disturbed and unsettled” conditions, particularly around Athenry, which he attributed to the rebel leaders having so far avoided arrest.[17]

Both inspectors attended the Royal Commission on the 27th May, inside the Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin, as the British state ponderously tried to make sense of what had happened. A succession of RIC officials spoke before a panel of Westminster-appointed worthies, headed by Lord Hardinge as chairman, testifying to the state of the country in the lead-up to the rebellion.

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Shelbourne Hotel, Dublin

When the attention turned to Galway, one of the few counties where fighting had occurred, ‘William Mellowes’ was given a star role as Rutledge described how he had arrived in March 1915, setting up headquarters in Athenry, an area long troubled by agrarian unrest and thus ideal recruiting ground for Mellows and the secret society he represented.

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Lord Hardinge

There had been such a sect in Galway since 1882, Rutledge explained, though he neglected to give the name of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Instead, the most common term used throughout the Commission was ‘Sinn Féin’, with its participants as ‘Sinn Féiners’, albeit more to describe a general attitude than any specific organisation.

Lord Hardinge: Do you think the fear of conscription had much effect in increasing the ranks of the Sinn Féiners?

Rutledge: I think so, amongst the ordinary village boys.

Lord Hardinge: Shirkers?

Rutledge: Shirkers. They won’t fight for England.

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Father Fahy, who convinced the Volunteers to quit

The attitude of the clergy during Easter Week presented a notable dichotomy for the Commission to consider. Clayton drew attention to how a considerable number of priests had lent assistance to the ‘Sinn Feiners’. And yet it was a priest – Clayton was unsure as to his name – who ended the insurrection when he persuaded the rebels to disband, though not before he had had a contest of wills with an intransigent Mellows.

Lord Hardinge: What happened to Mellows?

Clayton: He is on the run.[18]

‘The Elusive Mellows’

And on the run he remained, his exploits rapidly elevating him into a folk hero. Even the Connacht Tribune, which had dismissed the Rising as German-inspired folly, could not help but revel in the drama with the headline: THE ELUSIVE MELLOWS – HOW HE HAS OUTMANOEUVRED THE AUTHORITIES – STORIES THAT READ LIKE A ROMANCE.

“Romance, comedy and tragedy are strangely blended in the stories of the Rising in County Galway,” continued the newspaper:

Whether it be that Captain Mellows and the last of his army got beyond the cordon, I know not. Stories here are in abundance, but it is difficult to trace them to their sources.

I heard, for instance, that Mellows had a particularly fast motor vehicle, which he used to effect, and which has since been captured; that he escaped to Connemara in a turf boat; that the police are looking for a honeymoon couple, the bride being no other than one of the most daring of the leaders; that the insurgents escaped over the mountains, got out to sea by the Shannon, and were now on their way to the States; and a thousand other yarns of a similar flimsy texture.[19]

As it turned out, the article would prove to be remarkably prescient on a number of points. Perhaps not about the honeymooners or the boat trip to Connemara, but Mellows would indeed go about in feminine guise as part of his flight out of the country to the New World.

Others were not so fortunate. Michael Kelly was part of the Clarinbridge Company of the Galway Volunteers, and as such had been present at the abortive assaults on the RIC barracks at Clarinbridge and then Oranmore. While marching out of Moyode Castle with the rearguard, he had happened upon two priests cycling in the same direction, desperate to talk to Mellows.

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Moyode Castle

Kelly sat on a windowsill inside Limepark House, listening in as Fathers Fahy and O’Farrell did their best to persuade Mellows and the other officers to give up in the face of insurmountable odds. When the orders were finally delivered to the assembled ranks to scatter, Kelly had been among those who quietly slipped back home.[20]

Unfree

The hopes that that would be the end of it were dashed when, four days later on the 3rd May, Kelly was arrested at his house and taken to the nearby RIC barracks. A day later, he was moved to Galway Jail and forced to share a packed cell with his former comrades-in-arms. After ten more days of this, the prisoners were marched through Galway, jeered at by onlookers, to the station, and then taken by train to Dublin.

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Prisoners from the Rising being marched by British soldiers through the ruins of Dublin

In contrast to Galway, the prisoners received a jollier reception from the Dublin crowd. Not that it made a difference, as they were taken to Richmond Barracks, where they were again forced into overcrowded cells, sometimes twenty-four of them to a room. Three or four days later, they were put on a cattle-boat, the subsequent journey being a fraught one for some, as they feared they would be sunk by a German U-boat. Other prisoners made the best of their plight, singing and dancing to while away the time.

Upon arriving in Glasgow, they were separated into two batches. Kelly was in the one to be lodged in Perth Jail, along with some Wexford men from their own failed Rising. As they arrived in Perth Railway Station, a crowd there “thought we were deserters from the British Army and boohed us.”

The prisoners were undaunted: “We returned the boohs with a vengeance.”

Kelly remained in Perth for two months until he was moved to Frongoch Camp, and then again to Wormwood Scrubs, where he was startled at the amount of information the authorities had on him:

They knew every move I made for the twelve months previous to the Rising. They knew all about the dances I attended, the girls I was friendly with, and that I carried a gun in Galway on the St. Patrick’s Day Parade 1916.

They asked me did I know what I was going to do when I was called out on Easter Week. I answered that I did, and that I was looking for the freedom of my country as any decent man would do in an unfree country.”

Kelly was fortunate in that he was released at the end of August and could return to Ireland. Others continued to languish in their respective gaols, unsure as to what the future held for them.[21]

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Prisoners at Frongoch Camp

Found in Clare

Elsewhere, in Clare, Michael Maloney set out one morning in May in order to search for a filly of his that had jumped out of its paddock the evening before and escaped into the Knockjames Mountains. Accompanied by his greyhound, Maloney had travelled a good distance into the highlands when he spotted his filly in the distance. As he headed towards it, he came across three men kneeling on the grass as if in prayer.

When Maloney bade them a good day, one of the strangers rose to his feet and returned the greeting in a Dublin voice. Despite the incongruous accent, Maloney sensed that the troika were refugees from Galway where the Rising had broken out on the previous month. He assured them that, as an Irish Volunteer, he was one of them. The Dubliner asked if he knew a Seán McNamara of Crusheen, to which Maloney replied yes, he was his superior officer.

With that, Mellows was able to relax, as were the other two, Monahan and Hynes. Maloney directed them to an old hut nearby, where he brought them food. Leaving his guests there, Maloney went to McNamara with his discovery. Unlike in Galway, the Clare Volunteers had not been out during Easter Week, deterred by the contradictory orders and the confusion they had engendered, but their companies had not fallen apart afterwards either. They continued to meet and drill, taking care to do so in remote locations, away from the prying eyes of the RIC.

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Irish Volunteers

McNamara was able to collect some money from his subordinates. He contacted Father Crowe, a sympathetic priest, who also raised funds from amongst his fellow clergymen. These amounts were handed to Maloney who brought them up to lamsters in the mountains.

Also of financial assistance was Michael Colivert, the leader of the Limerick Volunteers and a notable IRB figure. While passing through Clare, he was alerted to the presence of Mellows and company. Colivert arranged to meet McNamara at the train station the following day, where he told him to come to Limerick if he received a telegram later that evening.

When the telegram came, McNamara duly went to the city, to be handed an envelope with £100 worth of notes inside, a gift from the renowned Daly family (Ned Daly being one of the executed 1916 leaders, while his sister Kathleen was Tom Clarke’s wife). Despite the failure of the Rising, the harsh consequences of which was still being felt, the tightly-knit network of republicans and ardent nationalists, and the support it could offer, remained intact throughout the country.[22]

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IRB leaders, left to right – John Daly, Tom Clarke (who married Daly’s niece) and Seán Mac Diarmada

Idling Away

The money was duly passed on to the three runaways. Not that they had an immediate need of it, stuck as they were in their mountain hut, and so it was forwarded to Hynes’ wife in Athenry, along with a message for her to take to Dublin to let their friends know they were alive. Due to the military presence throughout the country, Maloney offered to act as a courier to Galway, travelling there under the guise of attending a cattle-fair that he knew was on in Athenry.

This cover story was not enough to deter the British soldiers at Gort Station from stopping Maloney, who had to think quickly, as Hynes described:

After asking his name and a few other questions they ordered him to take off his books. “Look here, mate,” he said to the officer, “I take off them boots every night and put them on every day and that’s quite enough for me. If you want to pinch them you will have to take them off yourself.”

While the Tommies were occupied in pulling off his footwear, presumably for any dispatches surreptitiously stored on the soles, Maloney helped himself to a smoke on his pipe, burning away the slip of paper hidden there. It had been a close call, as Hynes knew: “If they found that note, they would be down on top of us before anyone could warn us.”[23]

Maloney continued on to Athenry and delivered the message to Mrs Hynes verbally instead. He took care to sign the registry at the hotel he stayed in with a false name.

For five months, Mellows, Monahan and Hynes remained on the mountainside. While a lengthy stay, it was not an unpleasant one; indeed, Monahan was to remember it in almost idyllic terms: “The three of us were never lonely or silent; we always had a lot to discuss and argue about.”

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Liam Mellows (second from the right) with friends, including Alf Monahan (far right)

Topics included the nature around them, which for the city-slickers Mellows and Monahan was a novelty, and the what-might-have-beens of Irish history, as well as the possible things-to-come for their own time. The trio enjoyed a rich fantasy life, from the names they would bestow on the battleships and regiments soon to be at their disposal, to the self-deprecating predictions Mellows made for when they would be old and grey. He would be in a workhouse, he told the others, and relying on them to bring him tobacco in between their jobs as street-sweepers.

“Of course, this was all good fun,” Monahan wrote later, a sadder but wiser man. “None of us ever thought at that time that those who fought for the Republic would ever want – much less end their days in the Workhouse.”[24]

‘The Most Perfect Nun in Appearance’

When news from Dublin came in October that the remaining leadership of the Irish Volunteers wished for Mellows to go to the United States, it was treated as an intrusion rather than a deliverance, with its subject resisting as best he could. “Liam was always more anxious about his pals than about himself,” said Hynes.

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Eamon Corbett

He had already declined an earlier offer in July. The places booked on the American-bound ship were instead given to Pat Callanan and Eamon Corbett. Both men had served under Mellows in Galway during Easter Week and were similarly hiding out, in their case in Co. Kilkenny. When asked, they agreed to go, and succeeded in reaching sanctuary in the United States.[25]

Mellows tried again to pass on the opportunity to someone else. He suggested Hynes but the other man refused. In any case, the orders were definite: Mellows had to go.

Maloney was able to acquire a bottle of brown hair dye for Mellows, the substance turning his distinctly fair locks a pleasing auburn. Combined with the matching suit Maloney had also procured, Mellows “looked quite the dude,” as Monahan admiringly recalled. When Maloney came by with a motor car, Monahan and Hynes waved Mellows off from the doorway of the bothan, both feeling very lonely now that their friend and commander had gone.[26]

Instructions were for McNamara to meet Mellows at Kearney’s Castle and take him to Father Crowe’s house in Rosliven, near Ennis. The priest was expecting the pair when they arrived at night and had managed to procure two nuns’ habits for Mellows and a woman who was to accompany him. Mellows had gone in clerical camouflage before as a priest. A nun would be a similar choice of disguise, if a step more audacious given the discrepancy in sex.

McNamara had left before the two ‘sisters’ departed from Father Crowe’s house the next morning, and so missed the chance to see Mellows in his habit. It was left to the churchman to fill him in, when the pair were chatting about the whole story a week or so afterwards:

[Father Crowe] said that on the morning after Mellows’ arrival in Rosliven, he was saying Mass in his house and [the door] was being answered by [the] housekeeper. The door of the oratory opened, “and, God forgive me, as I knew it was Liam and his lady friend nothing could prevent me from turning round to see what Liam looked like.”

Mellows had been, in Father Crowe’s eyes, “the most perfect nun in appearance that I ever saw.”[27]

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The veil Mellows wore as part of his disguise as a nun, now in the National Museum of Ireland

Going to America

Mellows later recounted his westward adventures to a friend, Mary Flannery Woods, whose Dublin home he would often use as a hideaway in the tumultuous years to come. Driven from Scariff to Cork, he was then taken by boat to Waterford. Poor weather held him back by three weeks until he could reach Liverpool. Finding a ship bound for New York from Plymouth, he signed on as a stoker, “a job for which he was physically unfit,” according to Woods, as he would soon discover.

0619The awkward absence of union papers necessary for sailor work was sidestepped when Mellows got the man responsible for the crew’s papers drunk on whiskey while they were sharing a train-carriage to Plymouth. When the other man passed out, Mellows threw the bag containing the forms out of the window. With the mysterious disappearance of everyone’s paperwork, the ship had no choice but to sail out regardless.

Other obstacles appeared – and prevailed over. Mellows had given his name as ‘O’Ryan’ when first signing on board, only to forget it when he gave another. When asked about this discrepancy, Mellows ‘explained’ how the second name was the Irish version of O’Ryan. Mellows laughed heartily as he recounted the dodge to Woods.

Stoking was not for the faint of heart or weak in form, involving as it did the constant shovelling of coal into a raging furnace. So intense was the heat that the sweat-soaked men were forced to strip to the skin. Mellows would sometimes be so exhausted at the end of a shift that he fell asleep before washing, a negligence that resulted in the dirt and perspiration hardening all over him. Removing the layer was “like tearing off one’s skin”, as he described it to Woods, who could only regard her friend with sympathy:

Liam must have suffered terribly on that voyage. Knowing nothing about stokering and afraid to being discovered, he feverishly watched the others working in this inferno, copying their behaviour, using nautical terms, swaggering, spitting even, a habit he detested in anyone.

At least one co-worker was not deceived, and tore a huge shovel out of the hands of an undersized Mellows before showing the landlubber how it should be done, throwing in some choice and salty words as he did so. Despite the toil and embarrassment, Mellows would regard the whole experience, even the worst of it, with fondness: “Affectionately he spoke of the rough kindness and great-heartedness of this man for all his swearing.”[28]

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Stokers at work

When the steamer reached New York, Mellows had one final trick to play, the last of many since the start of the journey. As he walked with the rest of his shipmates along the waterfront, they entered a pub where a fight was in progress.

“Come on, boys, let us get into this,” Mellows shouted, grabbing a chair as if for a weapon. He rushed through the bar until reaching a backdoor, whereupon he slipped out, shaking off the rest of the crew for good.[29]

Thus ended his inglorious, if necessary, career at sea, as well as an Odyssey which had begun in April from the collapse of the Galway Rising and ended in a sidestepped brawl in New York. His exile in the Land of the Free was about to begin, throughout which he would endeavour to play his part in the war for Irish liberty. Kathleen Ni Houlihan was not going to liberate herself, after all.

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New York, ca. 1900

‘The Most Capable Man’

Having accepted the offer to go to America in place of Mellows, Callanan and Corbett had arrived in Liverpool, where they attached themselves to the small circle of fellow fugitives from Ireland. After five weeks, a vacancy for a sailor opened, and it was agreed upon by the group that it was to go to their most wanted member, Donal O’Hannigan. A few days later and another two such jobs opened, allowing Callanan and Corbett to sign on as coal passers on a ship bound for Philadelphia.

The journey took nineteen days across the Atlantic, made particularly tense by the threat of German submarine. As the ship approached the mouth of the Delaware, orders were given to extinguish all lights on board to make it a less visible target. After the crew went ashore in Philadelphia, the two Irishmen slipped away and travelled to New York, where they stayed with O’Hannigan, who had arrived before them.

Cunning, silence and exile had enabled the fugitives to survive. Now they were in neutral territory where a support system of like-minded expats and revolutionary brothers-in-arms awaited them in the form of Clan na Gael, an Irish-American society with a Fenian pedigree and republican aims.

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Five Fenians – John Devoy, Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa, Charles Underwood O’Connell, Henry Mulleda and John McClure – posing for an 1871 photo in America

To make their introductions, Callanan and Corbett visited the offices of the Gaelic American newspaper and met its editor, John Devoy. A leading member of Clan na Gael. Devoy was informed by his guests that Mellows was still in Ireland but due to join them soon. Satisfied, Devoy gave the pair some money, and they then waited for a week before Corbett moved to California, leaving Callanan in New York with O’Hannigan. Hearing no further news about Mellows, Callanan grew concerned – until he was awoken one December morning by someone nudging him in bed.

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John Devoy

It was none other than Mellows at long last. When the reunited friends went down to the Gaelic American building – seemingly a rite of passage by now for the Irish exiles – Devoy, Callanan remembered, “was very pleased with Mellows and said he was the most capable man who had so far arrived in America.” Devoy would act as Mellows’ mentor, employer and, in time, bitter rival.[30]

December also saw the arrival in Dublin of a hundred and forty-six Galway men on the 23rd, who had been released the day before from Frongoch Camp. They were joined the next morning by the remaining three hundred inmates, upon which the former prisoners marched from the North Wall, along the quays, watched by the assembled crowds who cheered at the sight of them.

The men themselves were more subdued. Many looked pale and haggard after sustaining for months on a diet of porridge, leavened only by gifts of food from home. In addition to malnutrition, Frongoch had been stricken for the past three weeks by an influenza-like epidemic, the effects of which were still evident on some of its victims, while the temperature in their cells had varied from chillingly cold or sweltering hot, without a happy medium. Having survived such hardships, the newly-freed returnees kept their silence as they reached the city centre, save for a cheer when passing by the General Post Office.[31]

To be continued in: Rebel Exile: Intrigue and Factions with Liam Mellows in the United States of America, 1916-8 (Part IV)

References

[1] Kelly, Michael (BMH / WS 1564) pp. 9-10

[2] Monahan, Alfred (BMH / WS 298), p. 27

[3] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 15

[4] Molloy, Brian (BMH / WS 345), p. 14

[5] Howley. Peter (BMH / WS 1379), p. 13

[6] Monahan, pp. 26-8

[7] Howley, p. 14 ; Connacht Tribune, 06/05/1916

[8] Monahan, p. 25

[9] Connacht Tribune, 06/05/1916

[10] Ibid, 20/05/1916

[11] Monahan, p. 28

[12] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), p. 20

[13] Monahan, p. 28

[14] Hynes, pp. 20-1

[15] Ibid, pp. 22-4

[16] Monahan, pp. 35-6

[17] Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8541

[18] Irish Times, 29/05/1916

[19] Connacht Tribune, 20/05/1916

[20] Kelly, pp. 6-7, 10-1

[21] Ibid, pp. 11-2

[22] McNamara, Seán (BMH / WS 1047), pp. 10-13

[23] Hynes, pp. 28-9

[24] Monahan, pp. 41-3

[25] Hynes, p. 28 ; Fogarty, Michael (BMH / WS 673), p. 9

[26] Monahan, p. 45

[27] Ibid, pp. 13-4

[28] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), pp. 19-21

[29] Czira, Sidney (BMH / WS 909), p. 35

[30] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 405), pp. 4-6

[31] Connacht Tribune, 30/12/1916

Bibliography

Newspapers

Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

Bureau of Military History Statements

Callanan, Patrick, WS 405

Czira, Sidney, WS 900

Fogarty, Michael, WS 673

Howley, Peter, WS 1379

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kelly, Michael, WS 1564

McNamara, Seán, WS 1047

Molloy, Brian, WS 345

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624

National Library of Ireland Collection

Police Report from Dublin Castle Records

Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

A continuation from: Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Captain Liam Mellows – in Galway – fresh from his escape is in the field with his men.

(James Connolly, in a dispatch during the fighting in Dublin, issued on the 28th April 1916)[1]

Preparations

Even in the absence of Liam Mellows, confined to England for the foreseeable future, the Irish Volunteers in Galway continued preparing for their upcoming insurrection. Plans had been announced at a convention for the Volunteers in Limerick on Palm Sunday, the 16th April 1916, when a hurling match gave the perfect cover for the delegates from the Galway, Limerick, Tipperary and Clare Volunteers to attend.

After a lengthy lecture on military tactics to put the attendees in the right mood, the Galway representatives were taken aside to a room where a map of Ireland was laid out over a table with various positions marked on it. There, it was revealed that the long-gestating Rising, the one they had been building towards all this time, was set to take place a week from then on Easter Sunday.[2]

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Officers in the Irish Volunteers

Meanwhile, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) was none the wiser. The Volunteers planned on keeping it that way, right up to the moment they would march in force up to the police barracks and seize them. For that, the RIC would have no one to blame but itself. Its sergeants and constables had spent the past few months idly watching the Volunteers parade and drill in their company units, rehearsing for a revolution in plain sight without a policeman lifting a finger to interfere.

They would continue to do nothing until it was too late, until the Rising was already in unstoppable motion, until Ireland stood free of foreign rule and Saxon exploitation.

It would be child’s play.[3]

And then things grew…confusing.

Plots within Plans

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Patrick Pearse

Larry Lardner, the O/C of the Irish Volunteers in Galway, had reason to feel uneasy. Sometime in 1915, he had met with  a visiting Patrick Pearse while Mellows was indisposed in Arbour Hill Prison. Pearse’s purpose in Galway was to break the news about the decision to stage a rebellion. The details had yet to be formalised but would be passed on in due course to Lardner. The two had even agreed on a coded message, ‘collect the premiums’, chosen due to Lardner’s job as an insurance agent.

On Holy Monday, the 17th April, Eamon Corbett, the Vice-Commandant of the Galway Volunteers (and a future TD for the county), was dispatched to Dublin to attend a high-level meeting in St Edna’s School, which Pearse ran. Corbett returned with the orders for a countrywide uprising, to commence in six days’ time on Easter Sunday, the 22nd April. Even the precise point of 7 pm had been worked out.

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Eoin MacNeill

But, despite the seemingly straightforward nature of this plan, the code phrase for Lardner to ‘collect the premiums’ had not been included, leaving him unsure. His qualms were further heightened when a contradictory order arrived the following day, on the 18th April, calling off any such rebellion. As this had been signed by Eoin MacNeill, the Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers, it was not something that could be dismissed.

Unsure on how to proceed, the Galway officers held a meeting of their own in the house of a sympathetic priest, Father Harry Feeney, at Clarinbridge. The decision was made for Lardner to head to Dublin himself and get a definite answer out of MacNeill and Pearse. Arriving in the capital on Holy Thursday, the 20th April, Lardner failed to find either man, instead obtaining an interview with the next best thing: Bulmer Hobson, the Secretary of the Irish Volunteers Executive.

Doubts and Decisions

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Bulmer Hobson

Already suspecting a divergence of opinion among the leaders of the movement, Lardner tried to ascertain from Bulmer what was going on. Bulmer’s advice him not to accept any orders that had not been approved by MacNeill. Which was straightforward enough – except that, by the time Larder returned to Galway, another dispatch was already there and waiting for him. It was from Pearse, telling him at last to ‘collect the premiums’ next Sunday on Easter Week, the 23rd April, at 7 pm.

The use of the code appeared conclusive – until the following day, on Good Friday, the 21st April, saw the appearance of yet another missive, this time from MacNeill, again calling for the Volunteers to stand down and do nothing.[4]

With Lardner paralysed by doubt, the other Galway officers approached his lieutenant, Frank Hynes, to lead them instead. Being no man’s fool, Hynes was instantly wary:

I had been ignored up to this as regards meetings of the council. I said “why do you come to me at the eleventh hour. What about Larry?” They said Larry was funking it.

Unwilling to commit himself quite yet, Hynes first went to see Lardner, finding the Brigade O/C on the verge of despair, pulled this way and that by the conflicting demands. Even consulting the Dublin headquarters had only exasperated things, Lardner complained.

After listening to his tirade, Hynes asked him point blank if he would follow the rest of the men should they marched out to fight on Easter Sunday.

“Oh, I’ll go out alright,” Lardner said.

Hynes was reassured. His commander would not be funking it, after all. But the pair of them were still not precisely clear what ‘it’ was supposed to be.[5]

Stop Press

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James Connolly

Mellows, meanwhile, had made good his flight from England, returning to Ireland with the assistance of Nora Connolly and his brother Barney, the latter left in his place in Leeks with no one the wiser. Despite the drama and daring of the escape, the only newspaper to show interest was the Workers’ Republic – unsurprisingly so, considering how its editor was James Connolly, Nora’s father, who had sent his daughter on the rescue mission in the first place:

STOP PRESS. – RESCUE OF LIAM MELLOWS

We are at liberty to announce that Liam Mellows, the energetic Organiser of the Irish Volunteers who was recently deported to England, has been rescued, and is now safe back in Ireland.

Although this rescue took place more than a week ago the British Authorities have resolutely refused to publish the fact up to the present.[6]

Returning to Dublin gave Mellows the chance to catch up with friends, including Con Colbert, and they stayed up the whole night together singing rebel songs and having pillow-fights.[7]

On Holy Monday, the 17th April, Éamonn Ceannt – who would soon command the Irish Volunteers in defending the South Dublin Union – suggested to his wife, Áine, that they take their 10-year-old son, Ronan, for a trip to St Edna’s. As the school was closed for the holidays, it would be quiet enough. Besides, he had no intention of remaining where he could be found and arrested anytime by the authorities.

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Éamonn Ceannt, with Áine (front)

That morning was a glorious one, with the birds singing on the branches of fruit trees in full blossom. Áine saw a smiling young man in clerical garb approach them from an avenue of trees. The ‘priest’ clasped her hand and then shook young Ronan’s.

An aithnigheann tú é [did you recognise me]?” Mellows asked the child.

Aithnighin [I did],” replied Ronan, who had been well-schooled in Irish.

Patrick and Willie Pearse soon joined them in the garden, along with their sister Margaret and their mother. A pleasant meal was then had, the talk ranging from books to music, with not a word said about the fight they all knew was coming.

Afterwards, Áine and her son were sent to wait in the front grounds while the men talked. When Éamonn rejoined them, it was to give his wife her instructions. It was then that Áine realised that the visit had been intended as much for business as pleasure. She was to accompany Mellow’s mother, Sarah, to St Edna’s under the cover of night for her to say goodbye to her son before he set off for Galway the following day, on the 18th April.

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St Edna’s School

Áine and Sarah arrived at the school at about 9:30 pm, having changed trams four or five times on the way as a precaution. The building was in complete darkness, with not a light dared lit, as the two women were allowed in. Sarah found her way in the dark to the backroom where Liam was while Áine sat and waited in the pitch-black hall. Mother and son would not see each other again for the next five years.[8]

Road to Galway

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W.J. Brennan-Whitmore

While moving through the country, Mellows took the opportunity to pass on instructions from Dublin to the Irish Volunteer companies he met. In a detour, he informed the Wexford men of their assigned role to keep the line of communications open between the capital and Munster. Secrecy was paramount: “None of those present were told of any specific date for a rising, but all were cautioned of the very confidential nature of the discussions.”

So recalled W.J Brennan-Whitmore, another visitor from Dublin, in his memoirs. It was late at night by the time the meeting was over and Brennan-Whitmore began the trek back to the big city, where he would command the defence of the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street. Mellows walked him to the bridge over the Slaney at the town of Scarawalsh.

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Scarawalsh Bridge, Co. Wexford

“It was a beautiful night, calm and still, with a full moon riding high in the cloudless heavens,” Brennan-Whitmore remembered:

We were sitting chatting on the parapet of the bridge when the cathedral clock struck the witching hour of midnight. We decided to call it a day, shook hands and parted, he to travel to the west to take up his own command there, I to travel to Dublin. It was destined to be the last time we ever met.[9]

From there, Mellows travelled in a north-westerly direction until he reached Co. Westmeath. As in Wexford, he passed on to the waiting Volunteers their instructions, these being to blow up strategic sites such as the bridge at Shannonbridge, Co. Offaly, before advancing westwards to connect with their Galway comrades.[10]

While in Westmeath, Mellows took the opportunity to stop by the house of an acquaintance, Father Casey. Mellows had changed his usual disguise of a clergyman to that of a beggar, complete with dark dye for his distinctive fair hair. Father Casey had a nagging feeling that he knew this stranger asking for alms at his door, but it was not until his visitor had left that realisation hit him. Casey ran to the gate but Mellows was already out of sight.[11]

Return to Galway

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Eamon Corbett

Later, on the afternoon of Spy Wednesday, the 19th April, the Manning family in Mullagh, Co. Galway, were visited by Eamon Corbett to tell them that Mellows would be coming to stay the night with them. Corbett had arrived on foot, his motorcar having broken down, and he was given a bicycle to ride on instead.

When Mellows arrived, he was again dressed as a priest, with some greasepaint over his face, and riding on the back of a motorcycle driven by a friend from Dublin. The friend did not stay for long, leaving Mellows to the hospitality of the Mannings.

The 27-seven-year old son of the family, Michael, had seen Mellows before when the latter arrived in Mullagh in May of 1915 to inspect the Volunteers there, of which Michael was a member. Mellows spent five or six days training the men in various forms of night attack. He had planned to return later in the summer but was imprisoned instead until November.

Mellows regaled the Mannings with a lively account of his flight from Britain, chuckling at how a dockhand in Belfast had fallen on his knees to ask for a blessing, obliging Mellows to mutter something appropriately Latin-sounding. He brushed off concerns of the RIC recognising him in Galway, saying he had passed by several police barracks already without arousing suspicion.

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RIC constables before a barracks

He said nothing to the family about what he intended to do now that he was back in Galway, but the fully-loaded pistol he placed under his pillow at night and the book on military history he was carrying along with his green uniform shirt – the only luggage he had – must have given them some clue.

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Liam Mellows

He did confide to Michael and his brother about the plans set for Easter Sunday. A notice to the press about a parade in Gort on the day was to be the signal for a general mobilisation of the Galway Volunteers. They would then march from Gort to Portumna, where they would be supplied with rifles sent up the Shannon from Kerry, where a German vessel was due to land with the weapons. It was a complicated plan, but Mellows was sure that their European partners would pull through for them.

Despite his cavalier attitude towards being recognised, Mellows was careful to remain indoors the following morning. He sent Michael to Loughrea with a note for Joseph O’Flaherty to alert him of his intention to spend the night there, preferably at his house. As O’Flaherty was an old Fenian and well-known to Mellows, he was delighted to oblige and sent Michael back with a message to that affect.

At the Manning household, Mellows swapped his priestly garb for an ordinary suit, given to him by Michael’s brother. As he left for Loughrea, he took an ash stick under his arm as if on his way to the cattle-fair that was occurring there the following day, Good Friday, the 21st April.

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Cattle fair in town

Michael attended the fair as part of his instructions to deliver a parcel to Mellows with his shirt and book inside. After buying and selling some cattle, Michael came to O’Flaherty’s house as arranged, found Mellows in bed and handed over the parcel.[12]

Back in Galway

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Tom Clarke

Other preparations were being made for Mellows’ return. On Maundy Thursday, the 20th April, Bridget Walsh, a schoolteacher who acted as a courier for the Volunteers, was sent to Dublin to bring back a message for him. She called in at the tobacco shop owned by Tom Clarke on Great Britain [now Parnell] Street.

Besides Clarke, Walsh met a number of leading figures in the revolutionary movement, such as Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael O’Hanrahan and Lardner, who was also visiting Dublin as part of his quest to find out what was going on. Larder told her that the rebellion in the works was now cancelled, throwing in some caustic remarks towards Eoin MacNeill and his incessant meddling.

After handing Clarke a couple of dispatches from Galway, Walsh received in return a package for Mellows. She assumed it contained a gun or ammunition, or perhaps both, and was only told later that it held the rest of Mellow’s uniform besides the shirt he was carrying.[13]

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75 Great Britain Street, the tobacco shop owned by Tom Clarke

Meanwhile, back in Galway, Mellows was escorted from Loughrea by three Volunteers from the Clarinbridge Company, one of them being Patrick Walsh, Bridget’s brother. Each of the trio took turns to carry their guest on the backs of their bicycles until they reached the village of Killeenen, where Mellows was to remain at the home of Mrs Walsh, another schoolteacher and Bridget’s mother.

It was an appropriate choice of lodgings since the local battalion also used it as its headquarters. Mrs Walsh would be remembered as “a grand type of Irishwoman…She and her family were heart and soul with the Volunteers.” Her friendship with her guest was a strong one. “She adored Mellows and he held her on the highest esteem,” said one Volunteer.

For the next few nights, Volunteers were posted with revolvers on the roads leading to Walsh’s house, their instructions being to bar any suspicious-looking strangers. Until Easter Monday, when the need for secrecy could finally be cast aside, Mellows was careful to only venture out in disguise.[14]

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Irish Volunteers with a tricolour

The Mullagh Company held a hurling match on Easter Sunday, the 23rd April, as instructed by headquarters in Athenry, in order to provide cover for an address by Mellows. As before, Mellows went dressed as a priest, complete with black hair dye. When he passed one of the Volunteers, Laurence Garvey, on the road, he went as far as to ask if he recognised him. Despite Mellows having stayed at the Garvey family house while on inspection tours, Garvey replied in the negative.

When Garvey recalled Mellows’ address to the Mullagh Company, it was notable, in hindsight, in what was not said, as Garvey was sure that nowhere was anything about an insurrection mentioned. Mellows stayed until 3 pm when he left on a bicycle, accompanied by Eamon Corbett, with his audience none the wiser.[15]

Easter Sunday

Playing it by ear, Larder and Hynes allowed the Volunteers to muster as originally planned. Without telling the Athenry Company anything else, Hynes informed them they were having a parade on the morning of Easter Sunday, before attending Holy Communion as a group. Similar orders were sent out to the other companies in Galway.

Well-trained by now, the men turned out in force as ordered, many wearing bandoliers and haversacks, although only Lardner had a uniform. Having paraded, the company was starting towards the church when a bulletin came through. It was from MacNeill, and it read: No action to be taken today. Volunteers completely deceived.

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Eoin MacNeill’s countermanding order, as published

After a hurried meeting by the company officers, it was agreed to issue dispatches of their own about this abrupt change of plans. There was to be no Rising after all. With that sorted, Hynes went to work the following Monday, thinking that everything had at last been settled.

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Larry Lardner

He was wrong. Returning to his home for dinner, Hynes received word that he was to go to the hall used by the Volunteers. “When I went down Larry was there and his face was a placard in which trouble could be read easily,” Hynes recalled.

Lardner handed Hynes the latest written directive, this time from Pearse: Going out today at noon; issue your orders. Which could only mean one thing – the uprising was back on.

Missed Chances

At a loss for what to do, the two men ratified all the companies they could. Upon been told that Mellows was back in Galway and now staying in Killeeneen – it says much about the general state of disarray that Hynes did not seem to be aware of this already – the pair sent a message to him, asking him for instructions. His reply was that they should not do anything until he came over.

By now, everyone had heard about the fighting in Dublin. The RIC had also been caught wrong-footed but they recovered more quickly than the Volunteers. In Athenry, policemen in outlying outposts were withdrawn and concentrated in houses adjacent to the barracks, making the building too daunting to attack.[16]

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The Old Barracks restaurant, Athenry, the site of the former RIC barracks

One of the leading organisers for the Galway Volunteers, Alf Monaghan, was to lament the opportunities squandered in the confusion, for the RIC:

…had apparently not suspected anything, and if the original plans had been carried out, it is probable that all the barracks in the county could have been taken without a fight. In Athenry alone all the police, except one man in the barracks were at Benediction on Sunday night, and most of them went for a stroll afterwards.

So sudden had the reversal in policy been, according to Monahan, that “it is recorded that one Company actually received the countermanding order as they took up a position around the local RIC Barracks on Sunday night.”[17]

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RIC policemen, armed with rifles

In Athenry, the only thing left for the Volunteers to do was prepare themselves in case of attack, with about a dozen of them staying in Hynes’ house on Monday night. Next morning, Lardner and Hynes made the decision to move the company towards Oranmore and unite with Mellows there. Then they would leave it to him to figure out what was what.[18]

Gathering Pace

Elsewhere in the Galway, Easter Sunday had been equally anticlimactic for the Irish Volunteers. In Clarinbridge, the Volunteers attended Mass in Roveagh village, as instructed, breakfasting afterwards on the church grounds, the food cooked by women in Cumann na mBan who were accompanying their male comrades. Mellows was present, as was Father Harry Feeney, Patrick ‘the Hare’ Callanan and Corbett as the company captain.

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Cumann na mBan women

After several hours of waiting around, Corbett finally dismissed the men at 3 pm, telling them nothing more than not to stray far from their homes in readiness of any further mobilisations. At least one of his listeners did not take these instructions too seriously, for Martin Newell set off the next morning to Tawin village, twelve miles from his home in Clarenbridge, to purchase some seaweed.

Newell was on his way back when he met ‘the Hare’ Callanan, the Brigade Chief of Scouts, who was cycling rapidly towards him. Callanan leapt off his bike to tell Newell to hurry on to Killeeneen, for their Dublin compatriots were already in open revolt even as they spoke.[19]

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Father Feeney

It was at about 2 pm on Easter Monday, the 24th April, when it was Mellows’ turn to learn how behind in the times he was. Father Feeney rushed to the Walsh household with the news that the Dublin Volunteers had been out since noon. Galvanised, Mellows instantly sent out dispatches to as many companies in Galway as he could, ordering them to mobilise and prepare to play their part.[20]

One of the messengers sent out was Michael Kelly. He was called over to the Walsh house, where Mellows had gathered Corbett, Father Feeney and several others. Mellows asked him if he knew the area around Peterswell. When the other man replied that he did, Mellows gave him a message to take to the Ballycahan Company. Another man, Patrick Kelly (no relation), was to accompany him, each with a revolver and orders to resist should the RIC attempt to detain them.

The two men did as they were ordered, and received assurances that the Ballycahan men would be standing by. They returned to the Walsh home, only to find that Mellows and the others had already left for Clarinbridge.[21]

‘Mid Cannon Boom and the Roar of Gun

When Newell reached Killeeneen, as instructed by Callanan, he was sent by Corbett to tell the rest of the sixty-strong Clarinbridge Company to come fully armed. All the Volunteers assembled as ordered that night, with Mrs Walsh sacrificing her family’s breakfast to feed the men for supper.

At 8 am on the Tuesday, the 25th April, the Company lined up outside the Walsh house, poised on the brink of no return. Corbett performed a rousing song, with the chorus of:

Then forward for the hour has come.

To free our fettered sireland’

‘Mid cannon boom and roar of gun

We’ll fight for God and Ireland.[22]

And, with that, the men began the four mile march towards their first target of Clarinbridge. Bridget Walsh watched them as they took their leave of her mother’s house, and could not help but notice how only a few had firearms in the form of shotguns, with the rest carrying pitchforks as a primitive substitute, while uniforms were limited to a handful such as Mellows and Corbett.[23]

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Irish Volunteers on the march

At least Newell was able to retrieve some stored ammunition from Killeeneen School. As he described:

We continued through the demesne and arrived at the convent gate, Clarenbridge [old spelling], where we halted and given right turn. Mellows, standing at the right-hand side of the company, addressed us. He asked for twelve Volunteers to step out. Practically the whole company stepped forward.

Spoilt for choice, Mellows picked a dozen men to act as the vanguard as the company entered the village and laid siege to the RIC barracks there. First blood was shed when a policeman was caught outside and shot when he reached for his revolver. As the Volunteers were in a merciful mood, and the county not yet embittered by years of conflict, the wounded constable was removed to the convent for medical treatment.

The attack on the barracks was interrupted when the parish priest, Father Tully, came to remonstrate with Mellows, urging him to cease and desist. Mellows refused unless the RIC men surrendered and asked Tully to convey this to the barracks. The priest did so, but the policemen inside declined and the attack resumed.[24]

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Site of the former Clarinbridge Barracks, with plagque commemorating the attack next to the door

Clarinbridge

Michael and Patrick Kelly followed in their wake, meeting other Volunteers posted as sentries a mile outside the village, from where they heard the sounds of gunfire. “The attack was still going on when we arrived,” Michael remembered. “The whole company was there, all firing at the barracks at a range of about fifty yards.”

There was a barricade on the Oranmore Road made of Mineral water boxes, with Volunteers behind the barricades to prevent reinforcements from reaching the barracks. All the approaches to the village were barricaded and all traffic held up. About midday or 1 p.m. the attack was called off.

“Mellows was in full charge,” Michael stressed. Other than the constable at the start, it had been a bloodless battle: “No Volunteer was wounded. There was no RIC man wounded inside Clarenbridge barracks during the attack.”

Seeing how they were only wasting time and bullets, Mellows ordered the barricades to be taken down. The Volunteers departed for Oranmore village, where they met up with two more companies, the Oranmore and Maree ones, who had already made an unsuccessful attempt on the RIC there. As with Clarinbridge, the police garrison were holed up inside the barracks, with the exception of their sergeant, trapped in another building in the village.

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Oranmore, Co. Galway, today

Mellows decided to continue the assault despite receiving news of police reinforcements on the way to Oranmore by train. He sent for Michael Kelly and Michael Cummins, assigning the former to the station to see if the enemy had arrived yet and, if so, in what strength. As for Kelly:

He sent me to the forge near the Sergeant’s house with a section of about six men with instructions not to allow the Sergeant to leave his house. The Sergeant made no attempt to leave his own house.[25]

The Connacht Tribune gave the officer in question a slightly more heroic role – unsurprisingly, given how it was Sergeant Healy who told the newspaper the story. Healy had been one of the two policemen out on patrol that morning, leaving four constables behind in the barracks.

When Healy saw the two companies of Volunteers advancing towards Oranmore, he was careful to take a circuitous route along the sea coast to avoid detection while returning to the village (the other RIC man, Constable MacDermott, being not so cautious, was taken prisoner). By the time Healy arrived, the Volunteers were already there, with his four subordinates fortified within their barracks.

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RIC constables

Lacking any other options, Healy retreated to the house of Constable Smyth, opposite the barracks. He watched as about thirty-five Volunteers rushed the barracks, only to be driven back by rifle-shots from inside.

As the Connacht Tribune reported:

Immediately Sergeant Healy had got with the shelter of Constable Smyth’s house, he sent orders across to the men in the barracks as to how they were to act and communications were sent to Galway for reinforcements.

Half an hour later, one of the assailants came to Smyth’s door and demanded the surrender of everyone inside. When Mrs Smyth insisted that there was no one else present, the men grew menacing. Healy warned the messenger at the door to go or he would fire.

Instead, the Volunteers began battering at the door until Healy shot through the panels, forcing them to flee down the street. They did not return, contenting themselves instead with taking potshots at the barracks.[26]

Flight

Cummins, meanwhile, had ridden his bicycle to the station and found that enemy reinforcements had already pulled in, one of whom missing a shot at Cummins as he peddled rapidly away to warn the others. Michael Kelly later numbered the RIC to around forty. More precisely, the Connacht Tribune put the Crown relief force down to twenty-two – ten policemen under the overall command of the County Inspector, and ten soldiers from the Connaught Rangers, including their captain.

Together, they marched at a smart pace towards Oranmore, scattering the villagers who had been drawn outside their homes by the novelty of a siege. An attempt by the Volunteers to disable a bridge on the way was abandoned, the discarded crowbars testifying to the speed of their flight.

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Clarinbridge today

Upon nearing the barracks, the mixed police-military force came briefly under fire by shotguns and rifles from the turn of the road leading to Athenry. This rebel rearguard then departed from Oranmore with the rest of their compatriots in commandeered motorcars.

“The whole random affair appears to have been over in less time than it takes to write it,” sniffed the Connacht Tribune.

According to Newell, Mellows:

…was the last to leave and took cover at the gable of Reilly’s public-house until the RIC arrived in the village from the station and, when they were about to enter the RIC barrack, he opened fire on them with, I think, an automatic pistol from a distance of 25 yards.

In Kelly’s version, he, Cummins and a few others had remained behind with their leader after Mellows had ordered the rest of the three companies to withdraw towards Athenry. The soldiers and policemen took cover beside the houses on either side of the road and did not retaliate, waiting instead for their assailants to leave.

Though bullet had whizzed perilously close to the County Inspector’s head, no harm was done, the only police loss being the missing MacDermott, believed (accurately) to have been captured. Not wishing to linger lest the rebels return with their superior numbers, Sergeant Healy and his remaining four constables left Oranmore by train with their rescuers after first stripping anything of value from the barracks.[27]

Carnmore

It was dark by the time the three Volunteer companies arrived at the Agricultural School, about a mile out of Athenry. Close as it was to a railway line by which further British forces could arrive, the School was not an ideal stop but, for want of anywhere else, Mellows decided to make it his temporary headquarters. The companies from Athenry, Craughwell, Newcastle, Derrydonnell and Cussane trickled in throughout the night, with the Castlegar and Claregalway men arriving in the Wednesday morning of the 26th April.[28]

The last two had been fetched by Callanan. After being dispatched by Mellows on Monday evening, he had been in a whirlwind of activity, successfully rousing the Volunteers in Castlegar and Claregalway, as well as those in Maree and Oranmore. Galway City was a failure, however, as Callanan was unable to get in touch with anyone from the Volunteers there. As for the Moycollen Company, its captain promised Callanan that he would mobilise his men and also pass on word to the Spiddal Company. He failed to do either, but Callanan had other things to worry about by then.

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Irish Volunteers stand to attention

Callanan returned in time to find Mellows and the Clarinbridge Company marching towards Oranmore. Mellows assigned him to go back and bring the Claregalway and Castlegar men to join him in Oranmore. By the time Callanan and the two companies arrived, the Crown relief force was already present and holding the bridge, blocking any attempt to follow in the wake of Mellows’ group.

Luckily, Callanan was able to learn that the main force was in the Agricultural School. As it was too late to journey to Athenry, he billeted his men in nearby Carnmore. Having first posted watchmen on the village outskirts, Callanan settled in for the night until awoken by gunshots.

The sentries had opened fire on a convoy of six or seven cars coming from the direction of Galway City. The vehicles pulled up by the road and their RIC occupants exchanged shots with the Volunteers sheltering behind stone walls.

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Irish Volunteers with rifles

Meanwhile, Callanan was hastily assembling the rest of his men, before they beat a hasty retreat out of Carnmore. The police did not pursue, instead driving forlornly back to Galway City with the corpse of Constable Patrick Whelan, a bloody hole in the side of his head, the 34-year-old native of Kilkenny being the sole fatality of Galway’s Easter Rising.[29]

The Agricultural School

A second shootout with the RIC occurred later on Wednesday morning when the sentries posted in a hut on the Agricultural School grounds were surprised to see a group of seven policemen advancing up the road with rifles primed. Alerted to the threat, Hynes set out with six others. They opened fire on the RIC who withdrew back towards Athenry, returning shots as they did so.

Hynes, Lardner and the rest of the Athenry Company had reunited with Mellows the night before at the School. When composing his story for posterity years later, Hynes would feel an acute need to address the question he was sure lurked in the heads of his readers:

Anyone reading this account would be inclined to think that we were acting in a rather cowardly manner – why did we not attack the barrack at Athenry? Why did we keep retreating, etc, etc?

The explanation he gave was that while the Volunteers numbered between five and six hundred, they had only fifty full service rifles between them, with the rest of the army having to make do with shotguns, inferior .22 rifles and a dozen pikes. Ammunition was equally scarce, and some men were not armed at all. Bombs had been made, but these were so useless that Hynes doubted they would injure a man even if they exploded in his hand.[30]

Alf Monahan took an equally sceptical view on their chances: “Over 500 men assembled at the [Agricultural School], but a great part of them had no firearms of any sort. In fact, there were only 35 rifles and 350 shotguns, all told.”

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Charles Monahan

As for the plan to land three thousand German rifles in Co. Kerry, to be moved by rail and distributed all along the line to Galway to the eagerly waiting Volunteers, that lay in tatters, ruined by a fatal combination of the gun-running ship being unable to unload, the arrest of Roger Casement and the accidental drowning in Kerry of the three Volunteers (one of whom, Charles, was Alf’s brother) who were to distract the Royal Navy with fake radio signals.

Despite this grievous setback and the equally worrying paucity of weapons, morale remained high. “All were in the best of humour and full of pluck,” remembered Monahan.[31]

Some of the men present had not even been in the Irish Volunteers before but were showing their willingness to contribute, whether for the national cause or more acrimonious reasons. Bridget Walsh described how a pair of Connemara men offered their services on the grounds that: “If you are going sticking peelers [policemen] we are with you.”[32]

Moyode Castle

Lardner was present as Brigade O/C but Mellows was undoubtedly the one in command. At a council of war, it was suggested by the officers present that their small army be divided into columns with which to wage a guerrilla war, but this was unanimously rejected. Instead, the decision was made to move on to Moyode Castle, five miles away.

As they left the Agricultural School, Mellows confided to Callanan his determination to never yield, not while there was still a scrap of hope. Help was likely to arrive soon, he added, with the Volunteers of Limerick and Clare sure to rally to their aid.[33]

Practically empty save for a single caretaker, Moyode Castle posed no difficulty in capturing. It was, in Monahan’s view, “not a good place to put in a state of defence, as there were large windows all around it.” Still, it was at least roomier than the School had been, allowing for the various companies to be allocated their own quarters. They had by then collected five RIC prisoners, who were kept under watch.[34]

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Moyode Castle

The next morning, on the Thursday of the 27th April, Mellows drove out with several others on a reconnaissance mission, calling on a number of houses to inquire after any enemy movements. Upon nearing the New Inn RIC Barracks, Mellows decided to risk further investigation. They found it had been evacuated except for two women, who told Mellows that they were the only ones there. When Mellows said he would give the building a search all the same, one of the women, visibly nervous, admitted that her husband, the barracks sergeant, was there after all, being ill in bed upstairs.

According to Stephen Jordan, one of the other Volunteers present (and another TD-to-be), “Mellows then requested her to go to the room and tell her husband that he wanted to ask him some questions, and to tell him not to be anxious as no harm would come to him.”

Jordan accompanied his leader into the bedroom, where Mellows questioned the sergeant about the size of the former garrison and where they would have left for. The stricken policeman replied that they had received an order to go to Loughrea and the rest had departed before daybreak, taking everything of value with them.

“The Sergeant seemed very relieved on account of Mellows’ gentlemanly manner,” remembered Jordan. “We returned to Moyode without further incident.”[35]

Fight

An incident was had, however, later that day, when Mellows assigned Jordan to lead a foraging party. They went to a farm at Rahard and were loading two carts with potatoes – with or without the owner’s permission was left unstated in Jordan’s later account – when a body of policemen pedalled into range on bicycles. Both sides reached for their weapons and opened fire, the sounds enough to reach Moyode Castle and prompt a rescue party of two or three carloads of Volunteers to drive out immediately.

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RIC constables with rifles and bicycles

By the time these reinforcements, headed by Mellows, arrived on the scene, the RIC had fallen back. After Jordan delivered a brief summary of what had transpired, Mellows gathered the men back into their cars and set off in pursuit of the police, who retreated further as fast as they could, reaching the safety of Athenry before the Volunteers could overtake them.[36]

Not so easily vanquished was the booming of artillery from the direction of Galway Bay as a British battleship, the HMS Gloucester, tried unsuccessfully to fix a target on the rebel base. The sounds were heard as far as the Castle throughout Wednesday to Friday, with the Volunteers deciding that this was from a duel between the Royal Navy and German submarines. Regardless of how their ‘gallant allies in Europe’ had failed in delivering the much-missed rifles, the Galway men could still entertain the hope that they were not fighting alone.

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HMS Gloucester

“The Moyode garrison was well equipped with rumour,” Monahan recalled dryly, but there was nothing known for sure about what was happening in Dublin or the rest of the country.[37]

Other than during the potato-hunting foray, there were no sightings of any police or soldiers, though that did not prevent talk of an imminent attack. Even years afterwards, that such gossip came about at all still grated on Hynes:

We will give the bearers of these false rumours the charity of our silence, but one in particular who was responsible for most of them was a very prominent republican and a member of the I.R.B. up to Easter Week. This man did his best to get us to give up and go home and have sense. He brought one particular rumour that five or six hundred soldiers were marching on us from Ballinasloe.

A meeting of the officers was called on the strength of this particular warning. Much to Hynes’ shame, one or two of those present were sufficiently unnerved to openly consider the naysayer’s advice to quit and return home, so disgusting Mellows that he handed over command to Lardner, who probably wanted the responsibility least of all.

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Group photograph of Galway Volunteer officers, including Frank Hynes and Stephen Jordan (standing first and second to the left), and Larry Lardner (standing, far right)

An hour was enough for Mellows to calm down and resume authority. He made his way through the castle, talking to the men and answering any entreaties as to the situation. They could hold out for a month, he told them, by moving south to the Clare Hills.

Flight

This was too much for some. When Monahan addressed the Volunteers on Thursday night, offering anyone with second thoughts the chance to leave, about two hundred – roughly a third of the force – decided to do so. They first gave up their weapons, overcoats and anything else of use to those staying, though some of these waverers returned the following day.[38]

By then, the Volunteers had been stirred into action when a scout returned with the news of nine hundred British troops on the march towards the Castle. Unlike previous reports, this one was broadly accurate, as anyone with a copy of the Connacht Tribune would have read of how:

We regret to say that we at last (for good or ill) now approaching the conditions of a regular trial of military strength as between the Crown forces and what, we suppose, may be described as the Insurgents.

Information was vague, admitted the newspaper; indeed, it wildly overestimated the rebels to be two thousand-strong. More certain was of the aim of the British State: “It was known last [Friday] night that the authorities intended to take the initiative.” Royal Navy marines had landed in Galway Bay, their strategy seeming to be to join the rest of the military in catching the said insurgents with a pincer-move.[39]

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British soldiers

There was no question inside Moyode Castle of allowing this to happen, and the debate arose again as to whether it would be better to disband or retreat in good order. The latter was decided on, and Mellows arranged the companies in marching order. Never afraid to risk himself, he took charge of the Athenry Company, alongside Corbett and Hynes, which was assigned to be the rearguard, where fighting was most likely to break out should the British forces catch up with them.

The Volunteers marched along by-roads to the east of Craughwell, making it to Monksfield by nightfall. The plan was to reach Co. Clare and obtain enough help from the Volunteers there to fight their way to Limerick, where further reinforcements hopefully awaited.[40]

Amongst the rearguard, Michael Kelly saw that they were being tailed by two men on bicycles. All he could make of them was that they were dressed in black. Kelly ordered the other men to take cover while he called on the strangers to halt. The pair were riding so fast that they sped straight into the midst of the Volunteers before they could stop.

Up close, Kelly could see that they were priests. When the two asked to see Mellows, a suspicious Kelly questioned them closely, learning that their names were Father Fahy and Father O’Farrell. He was not certain but he thought he caught something from them about Dublin.[41]

Turbulent Priests

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Father Fahy

Father Thomas Fahy first met Mellows when the latter arrived in Galway, early in 1915. When Fahy, then a professor at Ballinasloe College, had asked Mellows if the Irish Volunteers really intended to fight, he was taken aback at the assurance that they did indeed. With the coming of Easter Week in 1916, the priest saw the truth of those words for himself.

Father Fahy was at home near Athenry when he heard of the Volunteers taking up arms, just as Mellows had promised. Eager to play his part, albeit in a spiritual capacity, Fahy visited the gathered men in Moyode Castle every day to hear their confessions. While doing so, he took the opportunity to talk with Father Feeney, who was accompanying the Volunteers as an impromptu chaplain.

Feeney had asked him to go to Galway City to find out the views of their Church superiors. While Fahy was not able to meet Bishop O’Dea, other priests assured him that His Grace fully approved of Feeney’s aid to the rebels.

It was while in Galway City that Father Fahy heard that the Volunteers had suddenly departed from the Castle in favour of the abandoned country house of Limepark. Joining Father O’Farrell, they cycled towards the new base to catch up with his martial congregation.[42]

The priests were taken to Limepark, where the officers heard what they had to say. Mellows was sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. He had fallen asleep and so missed Father Fahy breaking some startling news. “They had definite information that Dublin had given in and that the soldiers in Galway were aware of our movement and were marching to meet us,” Hynes described.[43]

Kelly, who was sitting on a windowsill and listening in, would recall much the same thing: “I heard one of the priests telling all the officers assembled about the surrender in Dublin.”[44]

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Patrick Pearse delivering the unconditional surrender

In this, the two witnesses were either misremembering or the priests had been confused, for the Dublin rebels would not formally concede until later that day, on Saturday afternoon. Whatever the truth, the already tenuous situation for the Galway men suddenly felt desperate.

The only thing left for the Volunteers to do, Fahy urged, was to acknowledge the inevitable and disperse while they still could. Monahan stoutly insisted that they continue to resist. The others were not so sure. Unwilling to voice his own doubts, Hynes equivocated, saying that they should wake Mellows and hear what he had to say.

Hard Decisions

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Liam Mellows in uniform

After Mellows had had Father Fahy repeat the latest developments to him, he apologised for having been asleep. But, he said, he had brought the men out to fight, not flee. Even if he was to disband them, what then? They would be shot down like rabbits without a chance to defend themselves.

As for him, he would hand over his command to whoever wanted it. He was going to catch up on three days’ worth of sleep until the British arrived, and then he would battle it out with them to the last.[45]

Listening to this, Hynes knew that Mellows meant every word. Father Fahy tried a different tack, suggesting that the rest of the Volunteers should have the chance to discuss their options. Mellows argued that this was not necessary, for he had already put the question of continued resistance to the men in Moyode Castle, and every one of them had agreed to persevere. Fahy pressed on, asking if the rest of the officers who were not present could be consulted. After some hesitation, Mellows gave in and agreed to this.

At the subsequent meeting, Father Fahy outlined the situation to the fourteen officers present. Mellows continued to hold that it would be better to fight it out as their lives were forfeit anyway, considering how the five RIC captives of theirs would be able to identify everyone. When asked about this, the prisoners agreed to give no such information upon release, a promise they were to uphold.

At the end, the officers voted to disband, the only dissenters being Mellows and the faithful Monahan. For an alternative, Monahan urged for the Volunteers to take to the open country and pursue guerrilla tactics, as suggested before, but nobody seemed to be listening at that particular point.

Departures

When Father Fahy asked for this to be relayed to the men, Mellows excused himself, unwilling to ask a single man to leave after bringing them this far. And so the priest took on the task instead when the men had assembled outside Limepark House. Galway had done well but since they now stood alone, he told them, there was no point in carrying on. Better for them to return to their homes quietly and prepare for another day.

“Mellows did not address the men,” Father Fahy later wrote. “He was very depressed; the news from Dublin had upset him greatly.”[46]

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Limepark House, now in ruins

Despite his own low spirits, Mellows did his best to console the others, many of whom were weeping openly. Those who offered to stay with Mellows were turned down. Things would blow over, he assured them. When one man noticed how Mellows lacked a coat and offered his own, Mellows accepted it only with reluctance.

Hynes was among the last Mellows approached to say farewell. Hynes told him he was staying with him, inwardly hoping the other man would not order him away like he had done with the others.

Instead, Mellows took his hand between both of his and said: “God bless you.”

Soon, the only ones remaining were Mellows, Hynes and Monahan. They were about to re-enter the old house when Mellows announced that it would be preferable to make a running fight of it rather than remain inside to be cornered. The other two agreed, as they probably would have to anything their leader suggested, and so the three of them set out together, towards an uncertain future.[47]

To be continued in: Rebel Runaway: Liam Mellows in the Aftermath of the Easter Rising, 1916 (Part III)

References

[1] Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591) p. 18

[2] Fogarty, Michael (BMH / WS 673), pp. 5-6

[3] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 10-11

[4] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 13-16

[5] Hynes, p. 11

[6] Workers’ Republic, 22/04/1916

[7] Fahy, Anna (BMH / WS 202), p. 2

[8] Ceann, Áine (BMH / WS 264), pp. 20-1

[9] Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2013). Pp. 22-4

[10] Malone, Tomas (BMH / WS 845), pp. 6, 8

[11] Malone, Bridget (BMH / WS 617), p. 3

[12] Manning, Michael (BMH / WS 1164), pp. 3-7

[13] Malone, Bridget, pp. 3-4, 8

[14] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), pp. 8-9

[15] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), p. 5

[16] Hynes, pp. 11-13

[17] Monahan, pp. 16-17

[18] Hynes, p. 13

[19] Newell, pp. 8-9

[20] Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 8

[21] Kelly, Michael (BMH / WS 2875), pp. 5-6

[22] Newell, pp. 9-10

[23] Malone, Bridget, p.5

[24] Newell, pp. 10-11

[25] Kelly, pp. 6-7

[26] Connacht Tribune, 29/04/1916

[27] Ibid ; Kelly, pp. 7-8 ; Newell, p. 8

[28] Kelly, p. 8

[29] Callanan, pp. 9-10 ; CT, 29/04/1916

[30] Hynes, pp. 13-14

[31] Monahan, pp. 17, 19

[32] Malone, Bridget, pp. 5-6

[33] Callanan, p. 10

[34] Hynes, p. 14 ; Monahan, p. 21 ; Kelly, p. 8

[35] Jordan, Stephen (BMH / WS 346), p. 6

[36] Ibid, p. 7

[37] Monahan, pp. 21-22

[38] Hynes, pp. 14-15 ; Kelly, p. 9

[39] Hynes, p. 15 ; CT, 29/04/1916

[40] Hynes, p. 15

[41] Kelly, p. 10

[42] Fahy, Thomas (BMH / WS 383), pp. 2-3

[43] Hynes, pp. 15-6

[44] Kelly, pp. 10-1

[45] Hynes, Thomas, p. 16

[46] Fahy, pp. 4-5 ; Monahan, pp. 24-5 ; Kelly, p. 11

[47] Hynes, p. 17 ; Barrett, James (BMH / WS 343), p. 5

Bibliography

Book

Brennan-Whitmore, W.J. Dublin Burning: The Easter Rising from Behind the Barricades (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2013)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Barrett, James, WS 343

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Ceannt, Áine, WS 264

Fahy, Anna, WS 202

Fahy, Thomas, WS 383

Fogarty, Michael, WS 673

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Jordan, Stephen, WS 346

Kelly, Michael, WS 2875

Malone, Tomas, WS 845

Manning, Michael, WS 1164

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

Newspapers

Connacht Tribune

Workers’ Republic

Rebel Scout: Liam Mellows and His Revolutionary Rise, 1911-6 (Part I)

Coming to Galway

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Liam Mellows

In April 1915, the Irish Volunteers of Athenry, Co. Galway, assembled at their local train station to meet the senior officer being sent from Dublin to help organise them for a week. As the newcomer stepped on the platform, the company captain, Frank Hynes, could not help but feel disappointed, for the small, bespectacled youth fell short of what he had been expecting. This Liam Mellows appeared to be a clever lad at least, but what possible use could he be in a scrap?

The rest of the company, arrayed in parade-ground ranks, did not appear to be any more impressed. “Now, men, I was sent down to get you to do a bit of hard work,” Mellows told them, “so I want you to be prepared for a week of very hard work.”

If he caught sight of any of the poorly suppressed smirks, he gave no sign. At least the men were able to restrain themselves until the pipsqueak was out of earshot before collapsing into peals of laughter. Hard work, indeed!

Mellows began that evening with a marching exercise for the Athenry company. After a mile out on the road, with some of them were thinking it was time to turn back, Mellows instead doubled the pace. Hynes was at the front with Mellows and Larry Lardner, the commander of the Galway Brigade. Lardner was the first of the three officers to show the strain, with Hynes managing a little better while Mellows remained entirely unruffled as he pressed them on mercilessly.

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Irish Volunteers

Three-quarters of a mile later and Mellows told the struggling Lardner beside him to order a quick march. Lardner could barely breathe, let alone speak, leaving it to Hynes instead to wheeze out the command. When the three looked back, they found they had lost half their company, the stragglers left strewn along the route in exhausted heaps.

“By the time the week was up we had a fair good idea of what hard work meant,” Hynes recalled dryly. At the end of the assigned period, Mellows wrote to his superiors in Dublin for an extension of another week, which grew into a full-time appointment.[1]

The Plot Thickens

Others were similarly struck. Another Volunteer in Galway recalled how Mellows:

…was very boyish-looking and full of enthusiasm for his work. He impressed us tremendously by his determination and, looking at his slight figure and boyish appearance, we wondered where all his determination came from.[2]

Mellows had his reasons for pushing himself and others so vigorously. Early in March 1916, almost a year after his arrival in the county, he told Alf Monahan to impress upon the Galway men that any attempt by the authorities to confiscate their weapons was to be resisted. Like Mellows, Monahan was a sworn initiate in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the oath-bound secret society dedicated to Irish freedom, and so privy to matters that the ordinary Volunteer was not.

A Belfast native, Monahan was fresh out of prison when the IRB dispatched him to Galway to assist Mellows. “From this it will be seen that G.H.Q. had reasons for having Galway very specially organised and equipped for the coming Rising,” Monahan later explained. When news came of the plan for a countrywide insurrection, set for the Easter Week of 1916, it was of no surprise to either him or Mellows.[3]

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Irish Volunteers

Soon after arriving in Galway, Mellows went about recruiting in the eastern fringe of the county, resulting in a few new Volunteers but not enough to form a company. Despite this setback, he remained “always cheerful and happy,” according to Laurence Garvey, in whose family house Mellows stayed, saying the Rosary with his hosts every night before retiring to bed.

What Volunteers there were, Garvey included, drilled twice weekly, with Mellows often in attendance. Mellows also provided the ammunition for target practice, the costs defrayed by a weekly donation from the other men.

It was not all seriousness. For one summer week in 1915, Mellows camped in a field with a bell-tent, spending the days on his inspections and training regimes. Afterwards, in the evenings when his work was done, he invited Garvey and a few others to join him while he played the violin and they danced a few sets with local girls.

It was a change from the usual military routine, being “just a week’s holiday at Liam’s invitation and very enjoyable,” as Garvey recalled.[4]

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Liam Mellows at the wheel of a car, with friends, including Harry Boland (centre back)

Optimism and Comradeship

Mellows had the knack for charming people. Another acquaintance who fell under the spell of the quiet, steely power that Mellows possessed, even at a tender age, was Robert Brennan. Like Mellows, he would be in the thick of things during the 1916 Rising, in Wexford in Brennan’s case. Five years earlier, on a Sunday in 1911, he and his wife were making their way to Mass in Summerhill, Co. Wexford, when they came across a troop of youths, their green uniforms denoting them as Na Fianna Éireann, the Fenian answer to the Boy Scouts.

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Fianna Éireann on the march

At the head of the column was a lad with strikingly fair hair. Upon being introduced, Brennan found his hand inside an unusually strong grasp and himself staring into the blue eyes of Mellows, eyes that were “full of good humour, enthusiasm, optimism and comradeship.”[5]

The Brennans’ house soon became the training centre for the Fianna, with Mellows staying with the couple almost every time he was in Wexford. Robert soon saw the two sides to his young friend: “On the parade ground Liam was a stern, rigid disciplinarian. He drove the boys hard. Off duty he was a light-hearted harum-scarum practical joker and he was an inveterate prankster.”

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Robert Brennan

Despite being an IRB insider for some years, Brennan was sceptical as to whether all this martial posturing would amount to anything but Mellows was adamant. They would get their chance, Mellows assured him, when Britain and Germany were at war. Brennan was not entirely convinced, but such optimism was infectious all the same.

Mellows would return the favour by hosting the Brennans whenever they visited Dublin. He lived with his parents and siblings in a small but comfortable house on Mountshannon Road, near Dolphin’s Barn. On the walls inside were photographs of Liam’s father from his days in the British Army.

It was a career William Mellows had intended for his eldest son, enrolling him in the Hibernian Military Academy with that end in mind. He was taken aback when Liam told him that he would fight only for Ireland but made his peace with Liam’s decision.

Sarah Mellows, on the other hand, declared to Brennan that, being a Wexford woman with the spirit of 1798 in her veins, she could hardly be anything else but a rebel. It was not hard to see which parent Liam took after.

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The Mellows family house at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

Family Matters

Despite the political polar opposites under the same roof, family life was a warm one. Brennan remembered Liam tramping in with the heavy hobnailed boots he always wore and giving them a lively and light-hearted account of the day’s work with his Fianna scouts. After tea, Liam and his siblings, Barney – who would also become deeply involved in the revolution – Fred and the sole sister Jenny would play together as a quartette on the piano and strings, taking care to keep to Irish tunes in the spirit of Douglas Hyde’s ‘de-Anglicising’ mission.

Liam’s father had by then settled into an attitude of “puzzled but tolerant”, in Brennan’s words. An insight into the intergenerational dynamics came when Brennan came to Dublin shortly after the war with Germany that Liam had predicted began. Liam and his father met him at Harcourt Street Station. As they were leaving, a battalion of soldiers in the uniforms of the British Army marched by.

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British soldiers in Dublin

“Now don’t you see?” said Mellows Senior.

“Yes, of course I do,” Liam snapped, before reigning in his temper and turning to Brennan with a grin. “Father thinks the Volunteers do not put on as good a show as the British.”

“You know well they don’t,” insisted William. “They haven’t the precision, the order, the bearing or anything else. Look at the way these fellows walk.”

“Wait till you see the way they’ll run,” Liam said with an affectionate pat on his father’s shoulder. The older man turned to Brennan as if entrusting him with the task of talking some sense into his cocksure progeny.

“Don’t make the mistake of underestimating the British soldiers,” William said gravely.

“He’s afraid we are going to beat them,” Mellows said to Brennan with another grin.[6]

Na Fianna Éireann

At least one acquaintance believed that Mellows had more in common with his paterfamilias than an argumentative nature. According to Alfred White: “In many traits Liam resembled his father; both of them had a rock-like uprightness, a serious minded, unflinching adherence to fundamental loyalties.”[7]

White had the opportunity to observe Mellows at work. Na Fianna Éireann was organised along military lines, with groups of boys being in troops (or sluagh) and districts divided into battalions. Mellows was captain of the Dolphin Barn-Inchicore Battalion, with White doubling as his lieutenant and assistant general secretary.

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Fianna Éireann Scouts

The Fianna provided an exciting world for the young. White fondly recalled the pipers, the drills, the manoeuvres and marches, some being twelve miles out and twelve miles back – little wonder, then, that Mellows could later outpace the Athenry men. Mellows displayed a natural rapport with the younger boys, with the gift of imparting his own enthusiasm onto them. When White asked one what they liked most about Mellows, he replied that they liked the way he said ‘Ireland’.

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Countess Markievicz

The Fianna already had plenty of mentors: Countess Markievicz and her attempts to introduce some high culture with paintings on the walls of the Fianna clubhouses and donations of first-edition books from her personal library; Patrick Pearse, who showed the boys the death-mask of Robert Emmet and the sword of Lord Edward Fitzgerald during visits to his St Edna’s School; Bulmer Hobson in his book-lined cottage where he tried to impart some political economic theory (of all things).[8]

More successfully, Bulmer also took the opportunity on behalf of the IRB to recruit among the boys. By 1912, he was successful enough to form a special IRB cell or ‘Circle’ within Na Fianna Éireann. Known as the ‘John Mitchel Circle’ after the 19th century Young Irelander, the group was headed by the future 1916 martyr Con Colbert, and into which Mellows was sworn during Easter 1912.

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Con Colbert

The John Mitchel Circle was also the one Fianna officers in the IRB would attend if visiting from the country. This gave the group a disproportionate amount of influence among the Scouts, especially when it would meet to agree on which policies would be ‘decided’ at any forthcoming Fianna conferences.

From this privileged position, Mellows was becoming intimate with the workings of a secret society and the power it could exercise over other organisations so long as the host bodies remained oblivious. In later years, he would profess himself shocked at learning of the extent the IRB had manipulated others but, at the start, he was a willing disciple.[9]

On the Road

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Liam Mellows

In May 1913, Mellows left Dublin on his bicycle to work as a roving organiser, both for Fianna Éireann and, more surreptitiously, the IRB. One of his recruits into the latter, Seán O’Neill, recalled being sworn in by Mellows on a quiet county road outside his home town of Tuam, Co. Galway. There, O’Neill raised his right hand and repeated the words of the oath as Mellows recited them to him. O’Neill would remember his initiator in glowing terms:

This kilted lad, with his saffron-flowing shawl over his shoulders, Tara brooch, green kilts, long stockings and shoes, arrived, and brought with him a ray of sunshine into our somewhat dull and drab town of that period. His name was Liam Mellows – a man who helped in no small way to change the course of history.

When one looks back and visualises the scene, the colour and beauty of such an attired lad on the stage – one wonders if it is possible that he is really dead![10]

In the space of six months, it was said that Mellows had managed to cover almost every city, town and hamlet in the country. When White saw Mellows again later in 1913, he found his friend “deeply bronzed, strong and hearty looking.”[11]

Mellows had returned to Dublin at the right time, for the Irish Volunteers were formed in November 1913, and Na Fianna Éireann was now not the only militant nationalist body in the country. Given their shared outlook, that only with a firm hand and a gun at the ready could the rights of Ireland be respected, it was a natural progression for Scout leaders like Mellows to join as officers and instructors for the new army, with Fianna halls used to drill the Volunteers.[12]

The compatibility of the two groups were further displayed when they helped coordinate together the twin gun-running events in 1914, both of which saw Mellows play prominent roles. At Howth, on the 26th July, the Fianna stood to attention at the mouth of the pier while the Irish Volunteers unloaded boxes of rifles and ammunition from a yacht and placed them on a trek cart. All went smoothly as the boys and men marched back towards Dublin until confronted by British soldiers.

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Fianna Éireann  and Irish Volunteers transport weapons from Howth, July 1914

As a scuffle broke out between those at the front ranks of the opposing sides, some of the Volunteers wanted to break open the boxes and take out the guns but were ordered back by Con Colbert and Mellows, the officers in command of the Fianna. The two men gave the command for ‘about turn’ to the Scouts by the cart, who – in contrast to the panicking Volunteers – faithfully executed the manoeuvre and made good their escape, with the precious consignment, in the confusion.[13]

A week later, Mellows was present at the second such operation, this time in the seaside town of Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow. The Fianna boys were assigned to scout out the area and keep watch for any signs of police. Seated in a sidecar of a motorbike, Mellows would examine the maps before him in the dark with the aid of an electric torch before directing the boys to which routes to take.

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The Mauser Model 1871, of the type transported into Howth and Kilcoole

Disaster seemed imminent when the charabanc carrying some of the consignment broke down while passing through Sunnybank, Little Bray, forcing its passengers to hide the weapons in a nearby house whose owner was friendly with the charabanc’s driver. Mellows went on ahead in the motorbike to St Edna’s. Alerted to this setback, the Volunteers waiting in the school grounds drove off to Little Bray to rescue the stranded munitions.[14]

Police Watch

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Bulmer Hobson

His IRB contacts, along with the willingness to brave danger and a natural aptitude for hard work, ensured that Mellow’s rise in the Irish Volunteers was a swift one. When Liam Gogán, the initial Executive Secretary, proved inadequate for the role, Bulmer Hobson arranged for him to be replaced with Mellows, who proved far more satisfactory.

Mellows continued in that capacity, working in the Dublin offices of the Provisional Committee in Brunswick Street, alongside his younger brother Barney. This lasted until the autumn of 1914, when he took to the road again as an itinerant organiser, this time for the Irish Volunteers.[15]

Unsurprisingly, Mellows soon came to the interest of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). A police report, sometime in 1915, noted that he had come to Co. Westmeath in December 1914 to advise the Volunteers in Drumraney on drill and discipline, while urging them not to fight for any country other than their own. He had remained in Westmeath until mid-January and reappeared three months later in Galway where, according to a local constable, “there was a very marked bitter feeling against recruiting” for the British Army since his arrival. Mellows would make subsequent visits to Dublin, Waterford and Limerick.[16]

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Tom Clarke

Such occasions allowed him to network with other leading figures in the budding revolution. While in Dublin, on the 10th June 1915, he was observed by police surveillance inside a tobacco shop at 75 Great Britain (now Parnell) Street. For half an hour, he talked with its proprietor, a certain Tom Clarke, along with Con Colbert, Éamonn Ceannt and Piaras Béaslaí. Later that day, as if to squeeze in as much contact as possible, Mellows was seen in the company of Hobson at the Volunteer headquarters.[17]

But Athenry remained his base of operations. There, Mellows would spend so many nights in Hynes’ house that the spare bedroom became known as ‘Liam’s room’. Even that was no sure refuge from prying eyes, but Mellows had become wise to the ways of his pursuers. One evening, the two RIC men assigned to watch Mellows waited outside until 2 am, when they finally realised they had been tricked, their quarry having sneaked out through the back with his bicycle to continue on his way.[18]

A Meeting in Tuam

The RIC were more forthright on the 16th May 1915 in Tuam where, for some days before, posters and handbills had been advertising a rally, calling for ‘Irish Irishmen’ not to show cowardice by neglecting to join the Irish Volunteers.

“The organisers of the public meeting were the local supports of the McNeillite Volunteers,” the Connacht Tribune wrote, referring to the recent split between the National Volunteers, with their support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), and the more independent Irish Volunteers under the leadership of Eoin MacNeill, with whom Mellows had remained. Despite its IPP sympathies, the Tribune complimented the aforementioned ‘McNeillites’ on how they had “executed themselves enthusiastically in the work.”

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Market Square, Tuam, Co. Galway

The publicity had worked perhaps a little too well, for it had allowed the local IPP branch to arrange for a meeting of its own on the same day and at an earlier hour, drawing off potential audience members for itself. Still, it was a respectably sized crowd of a few hundred who gathered in Tuam square to listen to the first speaker, Seán Mac Diarmada, visiting from Dublin, with Mellows by his side, waiting for his turn.

“In the course of [Mac Diarmada’s] address,” reported the Tribune:

…he alluded to many points of the Volunteer movement…References to Ireland’s participation in the present war as distinct from England’s contribution, were made by the speaker, who criticised the Government’s attitude on the Home Rule and Ulster questions, and England’s misgovernment of Ireland in the past.

It was at the part where he said “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” that the watching RIC moved in, pushing through the crowd. At the fore was the District Inspector (DI), who mounted the platform and took the errant speaker by the arm, placing him under arrest.

“What for?” asked Mac Diarmada.

“Under the DORA,” replied the DI, referring to the Defence of the Realm Act.

“Let go of my arm, I’ll go with you,” Mac Diarmada replied.

Destroying the Evidence

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Seán Mac Diarmada

Satisfied, the DI released Mac Diarmada and turned to where another policeman was picking up the piles of leaflets on the platform. Those near the stage heard Mellows whisper “don’t fire” as Mac Diarmada’s hand fluttered over the discreet bulge in his hip pocket. Thinking better of it, Mac Diarmada instead made a swift left turn while Mellows did a right one, the former covertly passing his revolver into the latter’s waiting hand.

When Mac Diarmada had been taken by the RIC about twenty yards, he stopped to say that he wanted a quick word with Mellows, who was delivering a distinctly tamer speech, restraining himself to a call for the Volunteers to reorganise. A policeman appeared at the platform to escort Mellows to where Mac Diarmada and the other constables were waiting.

According to John D. Costello, one of the Volunteers on guard by the platform that day:

The two distinguished patriots had a hurried conversation, during which a note-book containing the names of all western IRB Centres passed unnoticed from Seán to Liam. Seán then went with his escort to the barracks.

Mellows later went to the barracks to see his friend. According to Costello, Mellows was able to snatch up an anti-recruitment leaflet Mac Diarmada had hidden on himself and throw it into the fire the prisoner was sitting in front of under the guise of lighting a match, with the policemen nearby being none the wiser.[19]

This story, good as it is, assumes the RIC – slightly implausibly – would have been careless enough not to search Mac Diarmada beforehand. The anecdote evidently did the rounds, for it also appears in White’s biography of his friend: “Liam claimed an interview with him in the barracks and, by means of some sleight of hand, and a pipe which obstinately refused to get lit, got possession of or destroyed all his papers.”[20]

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RIC members

In any case, the loss of such incriminating evidence was not enough to spare Mac Diarmada a six months’ prison sentence. Two months later, it was Mellows’ turn to fall victim to the DORA, when he was ordered to leave the country within seven days for an English town of his choosing or else face imprisonment.[21]

An Athenry Return

Described by the Connacht Tribune as the “local drill instructor, captain and organiser of the Volunteers,” Mellows defiantly stood his ground and served four months in Arbour Hill, Dublin. After his release in late November, he was welcomed back to Athenry by ten companies of Irish Volunteers, numbering seven hundred men, with a crowd of onlookers adding up to a total of a thousand attendees.

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Athenry, Co. Galway

The Volunteers lined up at the station, armed with an odd mix of rifles and pikes, as Mellows disembarked, a free man at last. Headed by the Galway Pipers’ Band, they marched through Athenry, stoically enduring the ankle-deep mud in the streets. Upon reaching the town centre, the crowd drew up on three sides of a platform and listened as a succession of speakers took the stage.

When it was Mellows’ turn, the applause and volleys of greeting shots did not abate for five minutes. It was not an ovation that Mellows was egotistical enough to believe was for him alone, he told his audience. No, it was the cause he served. If the short time he spent as a prisoner was all Ireland could expect, then it would not be receiving much. In the meantime, Mellows urged them to continue their drill and prepare for whatever may come their way.

(Whatever, indeed…)

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Irish Volunteers on parade

The meeting was marred only when the journalist from the Connacht Tribune, standing besides the platform, was told to cease his note-taking, perhaps on the suspicion that he was a police spy. When he refused, three or four pairs of hands tried to grab his notebook from him. “They did not succeed, however, in getting the book,” he wrote later with a touch of professional pride.[22]

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Patrick Pearse

But the real story had already happened and behind closed doors. During Mellows’ absence in jail, Patrick Pearse had visited Galway to confer with Larry Lardner, informing him that a countrywide uprising was to take place, although the date had yet to be fixed. When Pearse asked if the Volunteers would be able to hold position at the Suck River, near Ballinsloe, he was disappointed to hear from Lardner that this was unlikely due to the poor equipment at hand. All the same, Lardner assured Pearse that the Galway men would do their best at whatever was asked and whenever.[23]

Preparations

When not on the road, thwarting incompetent policemen or serving time, Mellows was occupied with his training regime, both physically and mentally, for the Galway Volunteers. As part of this, he would deliver lectures on the ideals and aims of the movement, along with practical tips such as the importance of cover, whether to hide from view or as protection against gunfire. Even a stone no larger than a fist could be utilised.

“Get your head behind it,” he advised his audience, “it may save your life.”[24]

On another occasion, he marched the Athenry Company to the village of Clarinbridge, six miles from Athenry. There, they joined up with several other units of Irish Volunteers. After some manoeuvres in a field, just as the men thought it was time to finish, Mellows divided them into two groups. One was assigned to ‘defend’ Clarinbridge and the other to ‘attack’.

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Clarinbridge, Co, Galway, today

As one of the defenders, Mellows collected half-barrels, shop shutters, horse and donkey carts, and anything else not nailed down, using them to construct barricades across the streets. After an hour of this mock siege, Mellows finally dismissed the enervated men, allowing the Athenry ones to begin their six mile trek back home.

They were so drained that it was next to impossible for them to keep step in formation on the following day. That is, until they heard Mellows singing a marching song from the rear of their group.

“Up to this every man had his head down and dragging his legs,” Hynes recalled. “As soon as they heard Liam’s voice all heads went up and every man picked up the step and forgot he was weary before.”[25]

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Irish Volunteers stand to attention, Co. Sligo

Shams

These mock battles did not escape notice, with a withering notice in the Connacht Tribune in March 1916 stating that:

I understand that the Sinn Feiners are going to have a sham battle one of these nights. All the “shams” are expected to turn up in full uniform, not forgetting the “bugle” which appears to be the only weapon of warfare they possess.[26]

Such sarcasm was perhaps not unwarranted. The Irish Volunteers – the ‘Sinn Feiners’ in question – were a minority compared to the National Volunteers. With the former bereft of political patronage and the finances that came with it, these differences were painfully apparent when the two militias were among those civic bodies parading for St Patrick’s Day in March 1916.

Inclining towards grey and khaki, the National Volunteers to a man bore modern rifles with fixed bayonets. Preferring a dull green in the uniforms, the Irish Volunteers were forced to carry fowling pieces when rifles were lacking and even freshly-forged pikes as if in re-enactment of 1798.

“The presence of large bodies of civilians, half attired and wholly armed as soldiers,” noted the Connaught Tribune, was no longer new, even if the novelty had not yet worn off.[27]

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Advertisement for uniforms, showing the spread of the Volunteer movement

If the newspaper did not take either Volunteer faction entirely seriously, there was one segment of Galway City who did, enough at least to dislike them – the wives of men serving in the British Army. These women gave the parading Irish Volunteers “a very rough reception” at the St Patrick’s Day parade, recalled John Broderick, in whose father’s house Mellows occasionally slept when not at Hynes’.

Shortly afterwards, Mellows fell afoul of the DORA for the second time, when he was again ordered to leave the country within seven days. This time, there was no option of remaining in Ireland, even in jail, as he would be forcibly deported if he did not agree to leave.

He was served the notice at the Brodericks’ house in front of John. John later visited Mellows in the RIC barracks where the latter was taken after refusing to comply. He sat beside Mellows and, when he rose to leave, he found that the other man had slipped a revolver into his pocket.[28]

Nora Connolly

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Nora Connolly

Shortly before the Easter Week of 1916, Nora, James Connolly’s daughter, was busy in Belfast gathering cigarettes to send down to the Irish Volunteers in Dublin. When she arrived home, late in the afternoon, she found Barney Mellows there, the boy having taken an early train from Dublin. He carried a note from her father: Barney will tell you what we want. We have every confidence in you.

Barney explained that his elder brother was due to be deported that night. In response, her father had tasked her with bringing Liam back in time for the planned uprising. This was a tall order, especially as no one knew where in England Liam was being sent – at most, they had the suggestion of his father’s birthplace of Leek, Staffordshire – but Nora was determined to rise to the challenge.[29]

Mellows had long been friendly with the family, having met the Connolly daughters through Na Fianna Éireann. While the family was living in Belfast, Nora would travel down to Dublin for a week or two, partly to keep in touch with the burgeoning national movement there and also as a relief from the hostility of a predominately Unionist city. Mellows would take her to Amiens Street Station, where a friend of his would sign her ticket and save her from having to spend more money to stay longer.[30]

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James Connolly

Her sister, Ina, became secretary of the Belfast sluagh of the Fianna, and would praise Mellow’s gifts as a storyteller and prankster. While her father would meet through the Scouts a number of youths who would later be his comrades-in-arms during the Rising, such as Colbert and Seán Heuston, it was Mellows in particular, according to Ina, who “became firmly attached to my father and family.”[31]

The Search Begins

The trust her father had placed in Nora would have to make do in place of a plan, of which there was none. As she later put it: “They would leave it to my own good sense. They were not hampering me with any plan.”

All Nora had instead was Barney’s help, the list of helpful addresses he had brought with him, as written out by Mac Diarmada (as Secretary of the IRB Supreme Council, he was ideally placed to know who to turn to in Britain), and the promised arrival of someone who had the information as to where Liam had been sent.

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Helena Molony

At 9 pm, the person in question knocked at the Connolly residence, this being Helena Molony, the republican socialist and feminist. Unfortunately, she did not know Liam’s location either. It was decided that Nora and Barney would make a start at least by going to Birmingham, to where the required information could be forwarded.

As Nora was too well known in Belfast for her liking, Molony drew upon her thespian experience and disguised her as a much older woman with the use of stage makeup. Next came the rudiments of a strategy: Nora would take the first boat to Glasgow, and Barney would follow on a later one.

Glasgow

When the pair reunited in Glasgow, they made their way to the first of the safe-houses. The girl of the family there knew Mac Diarmada well enough to recognise his handwriting, so she accepted the two strangers at her door at once. Nora could not recall their names by the time she recounted the story but the family were the Eakins on Cathcart Road, and the girl was most likely Maggie Eakin.

Nora and Barney decided to go to Edinburgh next instead of Birmingham directly in case they were being followed. Their cover-story was that they were brother and sister, both being teachers from Scotland who were en route to the Shakespearean Festival – Molony’s penchant for theatre having rubbed off on them – at Stratford-on-Avon.

They went to Edinburgh but a train stoppage delayed them from proceeding immediately to Carlisle. In the middle of the night, Barney awoke Nora in the hotel where they were staying to ensure she was safe, there having been a Zeppelin raid she had managed to sleep through.

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Zeppeln

The next morning, the two were able to take the train to Carlisle and then to Birmingham, where they contacted the owner of the latest safe-house on their itinerary, hoping that he had something to tell them. But:

He had no word. It was to him that Helena Molony told us they would send word about Liam’s deportation. We hung on for several days, and no word came. We were nearly demented. We were afraid we were getting ourselves recognised in the town, but what could we do? We were nearly in despair when, finally, word came that Liam had gone to Leek.

The original guess had been proven correct. Now armed with the long-sought information, the duo took a train to Crewe and then hired a taxi – due to the lack of Sunday trains – to Leek. Determined to leave the minimal of trails, Nora took up speaking duties with the driver due to her accent being less obviously Irish than Barney’s, and asked him to drop them off a distance from their destination rather than taking them directly to the house.

Flight

After asking someone for directions, they were finally at the right address:

We knocked on the door. An old man opened the door. We said we wanted to see Liam Mellows, and finally he let us in. Liam had just arrived about half an hour, or so, before.

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Barney Mellows

There was little time for reunions, the plan being for the brothers to swap clothes before Liam departed with Nora, leaving Barney behind in his place. Deportees were confined to a designated area rather than locked up in prison, to be kept under continuous watch, and it was hoped that Barney could fool any surveillance, at least until he thought it opportune to head back to Ireland as well.[32]

Nora took Liam back the way she came, retracing her journey to Crewe and then to Glasgow. The Eakin family were delighted at the success of the mission, as was Patrick McCormack, a member of the IRB Supreme Council with the responsibility for the Scottish Circles.

McCormack received word from Maggie Eakin of the fugitives’ arrival at Cathcart Road. When he joined them, they discussed the best way to get Liam across to Belfast that night. Maggie suggested the aid of Father Courtney, an émigré from Co. Kerry. When he was brought over in turn, the priest was happy to offer one of his suits.

tgsa00657When the trousers proved too long – Father Courtney was over six feet in height – the padre ‘borrowed’ a spare from a clerical colleague who was closer to Liam’s diminutive stature, the complete costume allowing Liam to pass off reasonably well as a man of the cloth. Courtney even gave Liam an old breviary with instructions on how and when to read it, joking that Liam was his first ordination.[33]

With half an hour to spare before the boat back to Belfast was due, Nora and Liam took the train to Greenock, taking care all the while to sit in different parts of the carriage so as in not to appear to be together. Liam’s priestly disguise was convincing enough for some fellow passengers to apologise for any coarse language they had used in his presence.

The deference continued in Belfast, where even uniformed policemen saluted him, and he back to them, as he walked along the street, keeping separate from Nora once more as she feared she was too recognisable for them to take a train or taxi. The two adhered to a complicated leap-frogging method, each taking turns to go on ahead before slowing down to allow the other to overtake.[34]

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Denis McCullough

Finally they arrived at the Connolly house at the top of the Falls Road. Nora sent a postcard to Dublin for James Connolly in Liberty Hall. It read: Everything grand. We’re back home. Peter. A postcard was unlikely to attract much notice from the censors, and she knew her father would understand the coded message from ‘Peter’, her nom de guerre.

As for Mellows, it was agreed for Denis McCullough, the most senior IRB member at hand in Belfast, to drive him down to Dublin that night. There was little time left, for an uprising was due to start, one in which Mellows was set to play a leading role.[35]

To be continued in: Rebel Captain: Liam Mellows and the Easter Rising in Galway, 1916 (Part II)

References

[1] Hynes, Frank (BMH / WS 446), pp. 6-7

[2] Newell, Martin (BMH / WS 1562), p. 7

[3] Monahan, Alf (BMH / WS 298), pp. 12-3

[4] Garvey, Laurence (BMH / WS 1062), pp. 4-5

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

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] White, Alfred (BMH / WS 1207), p. 2

[8] Ibid, pp. 5-6

[9] Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968), pp. 17-8 ; Martin, Eamon (BMH / WS 591), p. 11 ; for more information on Mellows’ attitudes to the IRB post-1916, see Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 174-5

[10] O’Neill, Seán (BMH / WS 1219), pp. 12, 18

[11] Martin, p. 6 ; White, p. 8

[12] White, p. 9

[13] Kavanagh, Seamus (BMH / WS 1670), pp. 12-4

[14] O’Kelly, Seán T. (BMH / WS 1765), p. 139 ; Holohan, Garry (BMH / WS 328), p. 44 ; MacCarthy, Thomas (BMH / WS 307), p. 9

[15] Hobson, Bulmer (BMH / WS 87) pp. 3-4

[16] National Library of Ireland, MS 31,654(3)

[17] Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017), p. 238

[18] Hynes, pp. 7,10

[19] Connacht Tribune, 22/05/1915 ; Costello, John D. (BMH / WS 1330), pp. 4-5

[20] White, p. 10

[21] Ibid

[22] Connacht Tribune, 17/07/1915, 20/11/1915

[23] Monahan, p. 13 ; Callanan, Patrick (BMH / WS 347), p. 7

[24] Kearns, Daniel (BMH / WS 1124), p. 3

[25] Ibid, pp. 7-8

[26] Connacht Tribune, 18/03/1916

[27] Ibid, 25/03/1916

[28] Broderick, John (BMH / WS 344), p. 3 ; Irish Times, 26, 28/03/1916

[29] Connolly O’Brien, Nora (BMH / WS 286), pp. 9-10

[30] Ibid, pp. 6-7

[31] Heron, Ina (BMH / WS 919), pp. 76, 89-90

[32] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 10-14

[33] McCormack, Patrick (BMH / WS 339), pp. 8-9

[34] Connolly O’Brien, pp. 14-15

[35] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 199

Bibliography

Books

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

Crowley, John; Ó Drisceoil, Donal; Murphy, Mike (eds.) Atlas of the Irish Revolution (Togher, Co. Cork: Cork University Press, 2017)

Hobson, Bulmer. Ireland Yesterday and Tomorrow (Tralee: Anvil Books Limited, 1968)

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

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Broderick, John, WS 344

Callanan, Patrick, WS 347

Connolly O’Brien, Nora, WS 286

Costello, John D., WS 1330

Garvey, Laurence, WS 1062

Heron, Ina, WS 919

Hobson, Bulmer, WS 87

Holohan, Garry, WS 328

Hynes, Frank, WS 446

Kavangh, Seamus, WS 1670

Kearns, Daniel, WS 1124

MacCarthy, Thomas, WS 307

Martin, Eamon, WS 591

McCormack, Patrick, WS 339

Monahan, Alf, WS 298

Newell, Martin, WS 1562

O’Kelly, Seán T., WS 1765

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219

White, Alfred, WS 1207

Newspapers

Connacht Tribune

Irish Times

National Library of Ireland

MS 31,654(3)

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

The First Week of the Month

NEWTOWNCUNNINGHAM HORROR – IRA PARTY AMBUSHED – DEADLY FIRE BY MUTINEERS – 3 KILLED; 5 WOUNDED…

…FATAL CONFLICT IN BUNCRANA – MUTINEERS RAID A BANK – FIERCE FIGHT IN STREET – LITTLE GIRL DIES OF WOUNDS…

…SPECIALS’ POST ATTACKED – FIGHT NEAR DERRY…

…A FARM COMMANDEERED.

The multiple incidents throughout the morning of the 4th May 1922, resulting in a number of deaths and injuries in Co. Donegal, did not appear at first glance to be connected. That they were stand-alone events, independent of each other, would have been a reasonable assumption, given that these were merely a fraction of the total number of violent outbreaks that had occurred throughout Ireland in recent times.

For that week alone, the Derry Journal reported scenes in Dublin, Belfast, Kilkenny, Derry, Tyrone and Mullingar. Those Ulster-based acts were due to sectarian hatreds, always simmering beneath the surface of Northern life. As for those elsewhere, more secular passions were to blame as tensions between the two rival factions within the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that had been brewing since the ratification of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in January 1922 boiled over.

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IRA members in the streets of Dublin, 1922

The four headlines above, however, differed from the others in that they had been born out of an attempt to solve both problems, burying the IRA divide by intervening together in Ulster. To the men involved, their efforts had sprung from the highest of motives and most pragmatic considerations, even as they backfired spectacularly and murderously.[1]

“A Veritable Tornado”

The Newtowncunningham incident was to receive particular attention in the weeks ahead, being subjected to the worst possible interpretations from one side and counter-accusations by the other. What did seem clear, at least, was that a motorised convoy of pro-Treaty IRA men in three Crossley lorries had driven into Newtowncunningham village, Co. Donegal, to find the walls on either side of the street lined by their opposing counterparts in the anti-Treaty IRA.

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Newtowncunningham today

For reasons that were to be hotly debated, this encounter erupted in a gunfight, in which the Pro-Treatyites received the worst of it. One of them was killed outright in the opening fusillade, with another six injured, three seriously. The convoy sped out of the village and took its casualties to a farmhouse. From there they were able to telephone for medical help from Derry.

The doctor who responded to the call arrived minutes before two of the wounded expired, leaving him to dress the wounds of the remaining three as best he could. The sixth casualty was unavailable for treatment, having been left behind in Newtowncunningham and, presumably, now a prisoner.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers on a lorry

The engagement lasted no more than three minutes, yet had been savage in its intensity, with one survivor describing it as a “veritable tornado.” That it was an ambush, as initially reported, would be among the details disputed.

“Amongst the ambushers was identified the leader of the party who raided the Bank in Buncrana early in the day,” added the Derry Journal, the first hint at a connection between these seemingly disparate events.[2]

Partnership

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Michael Collins

The bitter irony was that it had been to stop such fratricidal conflict that the Anti-Treatyites had been there in the first place. In the spring of 1922, a series of meetings took place between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch, the generalissimos of the pro and anti-Treaty IRA wings respectively, with a number of their close aides attending.

A lot had changed and much remained the same. In the previous year, Ireland had been a country at war between the Irish Republican forces and the British military. Now, the only areas where Crown forces remained were Dublin – from where they were due to be transferred back to Britain – and the North-East corner of the island, long a flashpoint for trouble. The Truce of July 1921 allowed the rest of Ireland to at last breathe more easily but, in the Six Counties of Ulster, violence remained a fact of life:

While the memorable truce was generally honoured in the South of Ir[eland], it will be recalled that there was no attempt made to recognise a similar situation in the North, and more specifically in the present Six Counties, Eastern Donegal and other areas close to the present border.

The Crown Forces – Tans, Ulster Special Police, etc., whether they were supposed to honour their truce or not still backed up the loyal minority of present Ulster in directing their programme in Belfast and their general reign of terror in amongst the Nationalists elsewhere.

In the face of such provocation and desperate to do something:

The General Council of the IRA decided to recognise no truce situation in the North, and ideas were exchanged as to what remedy could be applied to meet the pressure on the Northern Nationalists.[3]

So wrote Seán Lehane years later, in March 1935, in his letter to the Military Service Pensions Board. Lehane had been among those chosen to be part of the said remedy: the agreement between Lynch and Collins to send assistance up to their beleaguered Northern compatriots in the form of men drawn from the anti-Treaty party.

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Frank Aiken

A Corkman with considerable guerrilla experience, Lehane was appointed the O/C of the new force. He would in turn report to Frank Aiken, the Armagh-based IRA leader, though in practice the Southerners would be acting on their own. Aiken had held himself aloof from the Treaty divisions, careful to maintain a guarded neutrality, and was thus an ideal compromise choice for Lynch and Collins.

Lehane’s instructions, as told to him by Lynch, were “to get inside the border wherever, whenever. To force the British general to show his real intention that was to occupy Ballyshannon, Sligo and along down [that direction].”[4]

Cross Purposes

That last part was a hint that the two IRA factions were not being entirely forthright with each other. The Pro-Treatyites, after all, were intending to only fight the British where they still were, not encourage them to return to areas already vacated. In contrast, such a policy reversal would suit the Anti-Treatyites perfectly, breaking the peace as it would and putting an end to what they saw as an unacceptable compromise.

As Florence O’Donoghue, one of Lynch’s confidants (who may have attended the meetings with Collins), put it:

Liam [Lynch]’s view was that, apart from the Army’s plain duty to defend our people in the North, vigorous development of activity against the Crown forces there, if supported by pro-Treaty leaders and pro-Treaty Army element in the counties along the border, would be regarded by the British as a breach of the Treaty, and would create a situation in which a re-united Army would again confront the common enemy.[5]

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Florence O’Donoghue

Which was the last thing Collins wanted. But O’Donoghue was a romantic at heart, and painted the secret pact between Lynch and Collins accordingly:

For both of them – and it was very evident there was in this project a clear objective that revived the old bond of brotherhood, a naturally shared desire to strike at the common enemy which was devoid of the heartache attaching to so many of their decisions at the time. They had, each for the other, a regard that went deeper than friendly comradeship.[6]

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Liam Lynch

Such regards did not cancel out the need for discretion. For his part, Collins would contribute weapons to the venture, donated by the Pro-Treatyites to the IRA units which fell under Lynch’s direct command, and then sent up North. The Anti-Treatyites would be recompensed with weapons that had been first given to the Pro-Treatyites by their new-found British partners, who were presumably unaware as to where their gifts were earmarked.

That way, any guns that came to Britain’s attention would not be traced back to Collins, still engaged as he was in negotiations with Westminster on the implementations of the Treaty. It was a skilful meld of subterfuge and politicking, but such secrecy also ensured that the right Irish hand remained unaware what the left was doing. In time, this would prove disastrous.[7]

Opening Acts

Still, things proceeded smoothly at first. One morning in April 1922, anti-Treaty IRA men stationed in Birr, Co. Offaly, saw a flotilla of small vans pass by, their number plates from Tyrone and Derry recognisable even underneath the grime and dust from the roads. The vehicles stayed overnight, left early, and returned later that evening. It was clear from how the vans pressed down on their wheels that they now carried a considerable load – of weapons, guessed the onlookers, who remained none the wiser as to the bigger picture.[8]

Even in the heart of the anti-Treaty command, the Four Courts in Dublin, this mystery was maintained. While performing clerical duties there as part of its garrison, Todd Andrews was puzzled at the exchange of lorries with the Pro-Treatyites’ own base in the Beggar’s Bush barracks. While Andrews was dimly aware that munitions were being passed between the two sides, he saw no paperwork, and heard nothing beyond gossip and conjecture, that could account for this unexpected glasnost.[9]

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Four Courts, Dublin

For the opening moves, the leaders of the new venture met in McGarry’s Hotel, Letterkenny, having driven there the day before from Dublin. Present were Seán Lehane (Divisional O/C), Charlie Daly (Vice O/C), Peadar O’Donnell (Adjutant), Joe McGuirk (Quartermaster), Michael O’Donoghue (Divisional Engineer), Denis Galvin (Support Officer) and two other men, Seán Fitzgerald and Mossy Donnegan.

Together, they formed the command echelon of the First Northern Division, with authority over the anti-Treaty IRA units in Derry, East Donegal, South Donegal and North-West Donegal. With everyone eager to start, it was agreed to seize two positions in Co. Donegal that would serve as launch-pads into the rest of Ulster, these being Raphoe town and Glenveagh Castle in the north-west county.[10]

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Raphoe today

The former posed no difficulty. Two days later, on the 29th April 1922, the Irish Times reported how:

Unofficial [anti-Treaty] IRA forces who marched into Raphoe from the Letterkenny direction, yesterday commandeered the Masonic Hall, a solicitor’s office, and other buildings. They have fortified the buildings. The official [pro-Treaty] IRA occupy the barracks.[11]

Raphoe was now host to two different armies. Elsewhere in Ireland, such as Limerick, Athlone, Mullingar and Kilkenny, such arrangements had led to stand-offs, kidnappings and even deaths. In Raphoe, however, the two sides seemed to have co-existed amiably enough.

Moving In

Since the takeover of the Masonic Hall had been unopposed, there had been no need for violence or other unpleasantries. The IRA intruders also took over the neighbouring office of a local solicitor as he was the possessor of the keys to the hall.

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Masonic Hall, Raphoe

“We were quite gentlemanly in our dealings with this solicitor,” recalled Michael O’Donoghue, a future GAA president and one of the ten-strong group who had entered Raphoe.

The solicitor in question handed over the keys with good grace, asking in return for some sort of written authorisation. These he duly received in the form of documents issued under the authority of the anti-Treaty IRA Executive in the Four Courts, and signed by Seán Lehane and Peadar O’Donnell as the Divisional O/C and Adjutant respectively.

The only other request from the solicitor was that he keep his silver antiques and other valuables that were in the two large glass cabinets in his bedroom (his office was adjoined to his private residence). When this was also accepted by the new occupants of the building, the solicitor duly locked the cabinets and presented the keys to O’Donoghue, complete with two copies of an inventory to be signed.

Thanks to this minimum of fuss, the new garrison was able to get to work in fortifying the Hall with sandbags before preparations could be made for the next stage in the operation. With Glenveagh Castle also taken, O’Donoghue set up his workshop there and began training select groups from each of the IRA brigade areas in his speciality of military engineering.

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Glenveagh Castle

O’Donoghue drew up a plan for the making and assembling of mines, bombs and other explosives and left his assistant to oversee their manufacturing process, using whatever scraps of material at hand. Meanwhile, he accompanied Lehane in liaising between the various brigade areas and setting up Special Engineering Services there, no easy task considering that he was having to build from scratch.

Four brigades in Donegal and Derry were visited and reformed accordingly in the space of about ten days. The absence of bases remained a problem, with the Anti-Treatyites possessing only three barracks in its area. The rest of such buildings, now evacuated by British forces, were now in pro-Treaty IRA hands.[12]

Meeting the Opposition

The first of many problems was how the Anti-Treatyites, as in Raphoe, did not have area to themselves. Lehane and his officers may have called themselves the First Northern Division but there was already a unit with that name, whose members had decided that their place lay with the Treaty, and they far outnumbered their opposing counterparts in Donegal.

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Pro-Treaty soldiers in uniform and on parade

According to Lehane, writing to the press on the 10th May, a week after the tragedies, he had attempted to contact the general of the pro-Treaty forces in order to minimise the risk of the two separate Divisions butting heads.

Unfortunately, Joe Sweeney was not nearly as accommodating, and a fortnight passed without an answer. In the meantime, the Anti-Treatyites were finding themselves under constant harassment, being often held up, searched, disarmed or even detained by Pro-Treatyites.

Pressed by his subordinates to do something, Lehane finally gained a meeting with Sweeney at the latter’s headquarters in Drumboe Castle. Daly was with Lehane, while Sweeney was accompanied by his adjutant, Tom Glennon from Belfast.

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The ruin of Drumboe Castle today

“We met on friendly terms and discussed the whole position,” Lehane wrote:

I pointed out what I feared would be the outcome of the continued aggression of his forces, and made it quite plain that there were sufficient enemies of Ireland in Ulster, and that we ought to be friends.

Lehane asked Sweeney, if not assist, then at least not to hinder him in his work. Was it his intention otherwise for civil strife in Donegal? But the other man remained unmoved:

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 the face of such a bald declaration, there was nothing else Lehane or Daly could say to make a difference, not even when Daly appealed to Sweeney on the basis of personal friendship. Their olive branch having withered, the two Anti-Treatyites withdrew from Drumboe Castle, and the situation between the two IRA factions remained frigid.[13]

Sweeney’s implacable attitude raises the question of how much he knew about the secret deal between Collins and Lynch. When interviewed years later, he described how:

Collins sent an emissary to say that he was sending arms to Donegal, and that they were to be handed over to certain persons – he didn’t tell me who they were – who would come with credentials to my headquarters.[14]

Cooperation with the Anti-Treatyites did not interest Sweeney in the slightest. When rifles arrived at Drumboe Castle in two lorries from Dublin, Sweeney was obliging enough to have their serial numbers chiselled off before smuggling some over to the IRA units in the Six Counties. He kept the rest, however, unwilling to risk them ending up in the hands of those his adjutant had proclaimed as their enemies.[15]

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Idealised depiction of an Irish soldier in the pro-Treaty journal ‘An tÓglách’, June 1922

Secrets and Uncertainties

This would suggest that the full details of the joint-offensive deal were unknown to Sweeney. Alternatively, he may not have cared, thinking that whatever had been agreed to in distant Dublin was not relevant in Donegal. After all, for all of Lehane’s protestations of brotherhood, the Anti-Treatyites did not always conduct themselves as the model of civility.

Only a month ago, on the night of the 25th March, the pro-Treaty garrison in Newtowncunningham barracks had found themselves under attack when Anti-Treatyites arrived in a number of motorcars and, after taking up positions that overlooked the barracks, gave vent with rifles and revolvers.

As reported in the Derry Journal:

The affray, which was characterised with bloodshed, opened with a few intermittent rifle shots and developed into something in the nature of a pitched battle.

For three hours, the village inhabitants were kept awake and on tenterhooks by the crack of gunshots. When the assailants finally withdrew, having failed to take the barracks, they left behind dozens of spent cartridges.[16]

Even after the arrival of Lehane and his Munster auxiliaries, the behaviour of the Anti-Treatyites could be found wanting. When the Derry Journal and Derry Standard earned their ire, copies of those newspapers were seized by armed men from the train taking them to their retailers on the night of the 31st March, and burnt. When fresh copies were sent on a second train, this too was held up and the reprints destroyed.

One of the hijackers, noted by the Derry Journal, “spoke with a pronounced Southern accent.”

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IRA members

Elsewhere, parties of Anti-Treatyites were reported to be holding up cars at gunpoint in West Donegal, and either forcing the motorists to drive them elsewhere or simply taking the cars for themselves. It is perhaps unsurprising that Sweeney would be reluctant to ally with such men, let alone permit them more weapons than they already had.[17]

Plan of Action

Squeezed between the more numerous Pro-Treatyites in Donegal and the well-equipped Crown forces stationed in the Six Counties, the Anti-Treatyites were in a precarious position. Throwing to the winds his initial plan for a gradual build-up, Lehane summoned another council of war in McGarry’s Hotel in Letterkenny. There, he drew up plans for an ambitious triple-pronged night attack.

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Seán Lehane, Charlie Daly and Jack Fitzgerald (standing, left to right) pose for a group photograph with two others seated

Daly was to command a sixteen-strong force, consisting of ten Tyrone and six Kerry men, to assault Molenan House, Co. Derry, which was held by about twenty Crown policemen.

At the same time, Lehane was to take the lead with thirty others against a British camp at Burnfoot that lay about five miles from Derry City. As this base was strongly garrisoned with soldiers as well as police, complete with armoured cars and machine-guns, this looked to be a daunting mission, particularly since so few of the Donegal natives involved had seen any action before, but Lehane hoped that it would at least serve as a baptism of fire for them.

The third advance was to be a robbery on the Ulster Bank in Buncrana, a village in the north of Donegal. There, they seize all the banknotes that the five-man team could find.

At the appointed time, Lehane moved from Raphoe, where his column had assembled, riding northwards in a small fleet of stolen cars. The men carried rifles and hand grenades, with revolvers and automatics for the officers. Travelling slowly along byroads, the flotilla came across a large crowd, mostly of young men, who had gathered near a road junction, eight miles out of Raphoe.

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IRA members

These were surrounded and searched for arms, something which they submitted to with apparent good humour. O’Donoghue felt ashamed all the same, the treatment he and his comrades were meting out reminding him too much of that by the Black and Tans he had fought against in Cork.[18]

Burnfoot

When the column neared Burnfoot Railway Station, they left their vehicles to advance more quietly on foot. It was now midnight, the designated zero hour for the operation. After some last minute instructions from Lehane, the men went about their allocated tasks.

O’Donoghue’s was to cut the telegraph cables in the station to ensure that no calls for aid could be sent to the British garrison in Derry. This O’Donoghue did with the help of a Derryman called McCourt who acted as a guide for what was for the Corkman a foreign land.

He was about to find out just how foreign.

As the pair left the station, their mission a success, a cyclist suddenly emerged out of the night towards them. O’Donoghue called out to him to halt and, when the man continued to ride on, the Corkonian – not wanting to risk a shot lest it lose them the element of surprise – grabbed him as he tried to pass by and forced him to the ground. McCourt brandished a revolver in the stranger’s face, with a demand to know his religion.

O’Donoghue was shocked:

It was my first experience of sectarian animosity in Ulster and to see an armed I.R.A. man acting like a truculent and religious bigot angered me. I turned on McCourt: “None of that” I ordered, “I don’t care a rap what his religion is and I’ll ask the questions [emphasis his].”

The frightened man was led away to be detained in the large shed where the other civilians who the column had come across were being held. With the area as secure as it could be, the IRA men checked the time and saw that it was about 1 am.[19]

Moving in two files, towards the camp two miles away in the dark, the IRA men entered a boreen that ran parallel to the main Derry road.  When they found the way blocked by a waterlogged trench, the men crept carefully alongside the fences lining the boreen until they had bypassed the pool.

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A boreen (country road) in Ireland

Nearing the Burnfoot camp, they froze when they saw lights flashing ahead of them in the distance. Some sort of message was being sent out, the men were sure, but none of them could tell what. Had they been discovered? Were the enemy alerted to their presence?

The column members pushed on regardless, being rewarded by the sight of a flickering red light that signified a fire. The British would surely not be so foolish as to leave such an obvious guide in the dark if they thought they were about to be under attack.

Emboldened, the IRA men continued along the boreen until they were overlooking the enemy camp, a hundred feet below and a hundred and fifty yards away. The column could not have asked for a better ambush site as its members carefully chose their places.[20]

The Battle at Burnfoot

The stillness of the night was shattered by a single shrill whistle-blast from Lehane, signalling the first volley from thirty or so rifles. Struggling to control his weapon’s recoil, O’Donoghue fired the full five bullets in the magazine before hurrying to reload.

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IRA members with rifles

In response, Verey rockets were sent up from the camp, one after another, lighting up the hillside until O’Donoghue felt as if he was beneath the spotlights of a theatre stage. Then came the rattle of machine-guns, mounted in the British armoured cars, the memory of which would be seared into his memory:

The din was terrific. Bullets whizzed overhead and thudded into the fence at our rear; they tore strips and sent splinters flying from the fence behind which we kept hunched down. Sharp crackling explosions overhead and in front – the enemy was using explosive bullets.

Outmatched in equipment and, fearing the immediate arrival of Crown reinforcements from Derry, Lehane gave the order to pull back. O’Donoghue and three others formed a rearguard, during which he was infuriated to find that ammunition and even a still-loaded revolver had been left behind, oversights that the munitions-starved Anti-Treatyites could scarcely afford.

O’Donoghue grabbed what he could and, when he judged that enough time had passed for the others to withdraw, the four of them fired a final riposte before leaving in turn. The enemy fire, having abated, returned with a vengeance from machine-guns, forcing the rearguard to crawl on their bellies until they were out of danger.

In the dark, they almost collided with Lehane, their O/C having conscientiously lingered to ensure that his four subordinates had made good their own escape. The IRA men returned to Burnfoot by daybreak and fell in for inspection. Two of them had been wounded, albeit slightly, and five had gone missing, presumably after taking a wrong turn in the dark.

Still, as the rest of the men pulled back towards Newtowncunningham, exhausted though they were, they could not help feeling jubilant at their first completed mission.[21]

Rare ‘Papishes’

The column was aided by their enemies’ misconception that it had originated from Derry, where British soldiers and police spent the morning after stopping and searching pedestrians in a futile effort to identify the assailants. Other than a grazed hand, the occupants of Burnfoot Camp had avoided casualties.[22]

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A British Army checkpoint in Ireland

When the IRA men reached Newtowncunningham in the early hour of 6 am, they took up billets in the village. Lehane, O’Donoghue and four others, all of them West Corkmen, selected a large mansion, half a mile away. Knocking on the door, they were admitted by the owner, who O’Donoghue remembered as being named ‘Black’.

As with the solicitor in Raphoe, the minimum of fuss was made. Despite his Orange-Loyalist outlook, Black played the role of gracious host as he invited his unexpected guests to a drink. Some awkward small talk was attempted, mostly about the political situation in Ulster, not that it was something any of the Corkonians could offer much about. It was something of a meeting of cultures, particularly for Back, who had never met Southern republicans before, and he was pleasantly surprised at their lack of interest in religious differences.

“To his mind, we were indeed rare ‘Papishes’,” remembered O’Donoghue.

As polite as everyone was, the IRA men were firm in their wants as they ordered no one to leave the house – a point they ensured by bolting and barring the exits – while taking the family bedrooms for their own. After a few hours of shut-eye, a messenger arrived at the door, breathlessly asking for Commandant Lehane.[23]

‘A New and Appalling Catastrophe’

Once allowed in, the newcomer told them that he was from the squad sent to Buncrana. While making their getaway from the Ulster Bank they had robbed, the IRA men had been fired upon by the pro-Treaty garrison in the village. Despite suffering a couple of wounds, the Anti-Treatyites had all escaped and were currently resting in Newtowncunningham with the rest.

For Lehane, O’Donghue and the others, there was little time to lose:

We hurriedly dressed and came down to a substantial breakfast, served by two daughters of the house with politeness and efficiency, but icily distant and formal in their manner.

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Charlie Daly

After eating, the six Corkmen hurried to the village and mobilised the rest of the IRA there. A dejected Daly had also returned with his squad, having failed to take Molenon House. They had arrived to find the building locked and barricaded. After hammering on the door and shuttered windows had failed to gain entrance or even provoke the occupants – assuming there were any – into any sort of reaction, the IRA party reluctantly retired.

As Daly related this, O’Donoghue could not help but feel for his colleague:

It was an ignominious failure for Charlie to report and he felt it all the more keenly since we in Lehane’s party had fought an all-out battle.”[24]

Lehane and his officers next inspected the wounded pair from Buncrana. One had a minor leg wound, while the other, a Tipperary native called Doheny, had been shot through the lung. While a wan Doheny kept up a brave face, there was no mistaking his urgent need for medical attention. He was about to be driven to the nearby hospital but, before his comrades could do so, as O’Donoghue put it, “a new and appalling catastrophe occurred with the suddenness of a bolt from the blue.”[25]

Inquest

An inquest was held the day after on the 5th May. As it took place in the pro-Treaty IRA base of Drumboe Castle, it is unsurprising that the findings would have a certain slant.

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A still-intact Drumboe Castle

The first witness was Colonel-Commander Tom Glennon. He told how, upon receiving word of the fighting in Buncrana on the morning of the 4th, he set off with a party of fifty men in three Crossleys and five Fords. Glennon led from the front, seated next to the driver of the first Crossley. When entering Newtowncunningham, he told the court, a man ran out from behind a wall and shouted ‘halt’.

The word was barely out when rifle rife was heard coming from both sides of the road. Deciding that to resist was suicidal, exposed as they were and outnumbered – he believed he was facing between 100 and 150 assailants – Glennon told the driver to speed on as far he could.

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IRA members lining up to shoot

“You did not anticipate an attack?” asked the coroner, James Boyle.

Glennon: No; if I had, they would not have got us as easily as they did.

Boyle: You were not going to attack any person in Newtowncunningham?

Glennon: No, we were not.

Boyle: Was there anything said besides the word ‘halt’ before fire was opened on you?

Glennon: No, the shout ‘halt’ and the first volley of shots came at the same time.

Boyle: Have you heard that a man named Lehane was in charge of the attacking party?

Glennon: Yes, I heard that.

Boyle: Is he from County Donegal?

Glennon: No, he is from County Cork.

Glennon added that his men had had their rifles at straight, as opposed to at the ready which was what they would have done had they been expecting anything. In contrast, Glennon said he had seen, after driving out of Newtowncunningham, several enemy scouts positioned nearby. He concluded from this that the attack had been carefully planned.

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Colourised photograph of pro-Treaty soldiers

Boyle: Is it possible that they knew you were going through to Buncrana?

Glennon: It is possible.

A member of the jury, Mr Shesgreen, was next to question the witness, asking if he knew the time of the incident. Glennon replied that it had been 6 pm.

Shesgreen: That is two hours after the truce was declared. Do you know whether the attackers got through notice from the headquarters in the Four Courts about the truce?

Glennon: I could not say. Official information did not reach Drumboe until after we left.

In a tragic postscript, an armistice between the two IRA factions had been signed that morning in Dublin between Michael Collins and Liam Lynch. It had come too late to make a difference in Newtowncunningham, however.

The three dead men – all Donegal natives – were identified as Corporal Joseph McGinley, Daniel McGill and Edward Gallagher. McGinley had had two wounds, one in his upper thigh, fracturing the bone, and the other low in the abdomen. McGill had been hit in the back and near the kidneys, while Gallagher had received two bullets to the groin.[26]

An Alternative Point of View

The pro-Treaty line was that Newtowncunningham had been a premeditated ambush, their soldiers driving obliviously into a death-trap without so much as a warning. Lehane replied to these accusations in a letter to the press on the 10th May:

With reference to the recent tragic incident…I wish to state the published accounts of the facts connected therewith misrepresents the actual circumstances of the occurrences.

By noon on the 4th May, Lehane had received word that his men in Buncrana had been “fired on without warning by a party of pro-Treaty forces, who were concealed in houses.”[27]

On this point, Lehane had a legitimate complaint as the Anti-Treatyites had been leaving the Ulster Bank in Buncrana at the time. Of course, as they had just held up the staff and robbed the bank of £8000, it was perhaps still not something that cast them in the best of lights.

Bearing the brunt of the fighting were the civilians who found themselves caught up in the crossfire. Five were wounded, some seriously. Among the victims were a father and daughter, said to be hit by the same bullet that ripped the hand of John Kavanagh before striking Mary Ellen Kavanagh (19). Peter McGowan (56) was injured in both legs, while Patrick Maguire received a flesh wound near his eye.

Of the combatants, John Doherty (24) of the Pro-Treatyites was shot in the elbow. Among the raiders, two were initially reported to have been slain, but that was erroneous. The pair were instead wounded, one thought to be seriously, though they were able to drive away with the rest of their party.

The most tragic of all was 9-year old Essie Fletcher. She was brought to Derry Infirmary with a gunshot wound in her abdomen. Surgery was quickly performed but to no avail and she died later that day.[28]

Lehane’s Version

While unaware of the full extent of the mayhem in Buncrana, Lehane knew that he had to do something. Relations with the other side had never been cordial in Donegal but now they had taken a decidedly violent turn. After consulting his officers, they agreed to move to Buncrana. He did not add in his letter to the press what he had hoped to achieve there – returning to the scene of a battle seems odd when his intentions were supposedly peaceful.

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IRA members

In any case, it was 6 pm by the time Lehane had mobilised his men and they were about to board their cars when a growing rumble warned of the arrival of another force. Mindful that these could be British soldiers or Crown policemen on the warpath from Burnfoot, Lehane “with a view to protecting my men…gave the order to take cover behind a broken-down fence, which was the only place available at the moment.”

Only he and Daly remained out in the open. They walked down the road to ascertain who was coming. Seeing that they were fellow IRA men, albeit of a pro-Treaty persuasion, Lehane and Daly called on them to halt.

Instead of doing so a shot was fired from the third lorry, the bullet passing over my head and smashing the fanlight of the door of a house near by, in which our wounded comrade, who had been brought from Buncrana, was then lying.

That was all the spark that was needed:

There was an immediate outbreak of fire from both forces, the pro-Treaty forces using Thompson guns as their lorries dashed though the streets. My men were ordered out on the street, as their positions were being enfiladed by fire from the lorries.

Meanwhile, the Anti-Treatyites were coming under attack from another direction. The men in the five Ford cars making up the tail of the convoy, which the Anti-Treatyites had been previously unaware, had dismounted to take shelter in a field, from where they could contribute to the shooting. Taking cover as well, the Anti-Treatyites fired back and managed to outflank the other side, forcing them back.

Lehane stressed the essentially defensive nature of his side: “On several occasions parties of them were at our mercy, but we fired only with the intention of dislodging them.”

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Pro-Treaty soldiers

Two Pro-Treatyites were taken prisoner after falling out of their Crossleys. One had been slightly hurt by the impact but otherwise they were unharmed. In addition to the POWs, the Anti-Treatyites took possession of two rifles, a revolver, six rifle grenades and some ammunition, as well as the Ford cars the Pro-Treatyites had abandoned in their flight.

After being brought to Raphoe, the captives told of how they had been ordered to leave their lorries and fight in the event of an attack. Lehane stressed how these two had been well-treated, the injured man tended to by a doctor, after which they were allowed to go free the next morning.

As for the truce that had come just before and too late, Lehane could plead a good excuse for not knowing of it:

Owing to our being on active service I did not get that wire until the following day, and only learned of the truce on the arrival of the Dublin papers on the morning of the 5th.

While expressing his regrets and that of his staff, and their sympathies for the families of the deceased, Lehane declared his conscience clean: “The actions and honesty of purpose of my officers and men will bear the fullest investigation.”

As for relations between the two sundered IRA wings, Lehane bore no grudges: “I am willing now as heretofore to secure an honourable understanding.”[29]

Final Rebuttals

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Joseph Sweeney

Such a hope seemed very distant. Sweeney wrote in turn to the press, complaining at Lehane’s attempt “to make it appear that an unprovoked attack was made by our men on an inoffensive party,” as he witheringly put it.

The first shot could not have come from the third Crossley as Lehane claimed, countered Sweeney, because that vehicle had not yet appeared from around the bend before the shooting began. The fact that the Pro-Treatyites were chatting and singing while on board, Sweeney wrote, alone testified to their complete surprise.

As for the claim from the other side that they had been unsure as to who had been driving towards them:

There are people who overheard conversations of the [anti-Treaty] men in Newtowncunningham prior to the ambush prepared to state that the ambush was prepared with the full knowledge as to who were to be attacked.

As if that was not evidence enough, he continued, an Anti-Treatyite had said to one of Sweeney’s men that not only had the ambush been planned, but not enough casualties had been inflicted in his opinion.

He conceded that the prior attempt at peace talks at Drumboe Castle, as described by Lehane, had occurred. But Sweeney was adamant that:

It should be understood that as an officer responsible to GHQ of the Army of the Elected Government of the people, it did not lie within my power to arrange “a basis of unity and co-operation” with a man who absolutely repudiated the Army, GHQ, and the people’s Government.

Sweeney’s closure to his letter was both an echo and a rebuttal of Lehane’s own: “An honourable understanding may be had by the recognition of constituted authority.”[30]

‘The Attitude of Hate and Bias’

Years later, O’Donoghue would be brooding on the injustice he believed had been inflicted on him and his own. To him, that there had been a truce was particularly damning to the Pro-Treatyites who had “set out the morning after the truce to round up the IRA. The Free State officers…knew of the truce, the IRA officers did not [emphasis his].”

The underlining showed how strongly O’Donoghue felt on the matter. That the verdict from the coroner’s inquest was one of “wilful murder” was another grievance of his: “This shows the attitude of hate and bias fostered at the time by the Press in general against the Irish Republican Army.”

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Anti-Treaty poster, depicting Michael Collins in league with Britain and Ulster Unionists in suppressing republicanism. Ironically, Collins had been behind a joint IRA venture in the North

Regardless of the whys and whats, Lehane, O’Donoghue and a few other officers took advantage of the armistice to return to Dublin, albeit briefly – there was still work to be done in the North, after all. Lehane reported to Liam Lynch in the Four Courts on the progress made so far, while O’Donoghue was impatient to add the necessary equipment to his bomb-making workshop. Regardless of the bloodshed in Newtowncunningham and Buncrana, they and the rest of their colleagues fully intended to continue their mission.[31]

Towards the end of the month, on the 27th May, the eighth victim of the Buncrana shootout, 19-year-old Mary Ellen Kavangh died in the Derry Infirmary. She had been shot in the upper part of her back, with the bullet lodging in her left lung. Death was ruled to be due to haemorrhage. That made her the second fatality at Buncrana, after 9-year old Essie Fletcher, and the fifth one on that unhappy day.[32]

See also:

A Death in Athlone: The Controversial Case of George Adamson, April 1922

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

References

[1] Derry Journal, 05/05/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] 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), pp. 203-4

[4] Ibid, pp. 204-5

[5] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1954), p. 250

[6] Ibid, p. 251

[7] O’Malley, p. 205

[8] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 268-9

[9] Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Dublin: The Lilliput Press, 2001), pp. 238-9

[10] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741, Part II), p. 46

[11] Irish Times, 29/04/1922

[12] O’Donoghue, Michael V. (BMH / WS 1741), Part II, pp. 46-9

[13] Derry Journal, 12/05/1922

[14] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 275

[15] Glennon, Kieran. From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Gennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 151

[16] Derry Journal, 27/03/1922

[17] Ibid, 03/04/1922

[18] O’Donoghue, pp. 49-52

[19] Ibid, pp. 52-3

[20] Ibid, pp. 53-4

[21] Ibid, pp. 54-6

[22] Derry Journal, 05/05/1922

[23] O’Donoghue, p. 7

[24] Ibid, pp. 56-7

[25] Ibid, pp. 57-8

[26] Derry Journal, 08/05/1922

[27] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[28] Ibid, 05/05/1922

[29] Ibid, 12/05/1922

[30] Ibid, 19/05/1922

[31] O’Donoghue, pp. 61-4, 66

[32] Derry Journal, 29/05/1922

Bibliography

Books

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

Glennon, Kieran. From Pogrom to Civil War: Tom Glennon and the Belfast IRA (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)

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

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)

Newspapers

Derry Journal

Irish Times

Bureau of Military Statement

O’Donoghue, Michael V., WS 1741

Book Review: Judging Redmond and Carson, by Alvin Jackson (2018)

redmond_and_carson_small_low_resDo personalities shape politics or does the political world move with a will of its own? Can individuals determine the fate of nations or are even the most powerful of statesmen doomed to be swept up by events? These are the central questions of this book, as historian Alvin Jackson looks at two men, John Redmond and Edward Carson, of very different natures, who stood on opposite sides at the heart of one of the most turbulent periods in Anglo-Irish history.

An interview each with Lord Kitchener on the eve of the Great War in 1914 best exemplified their contrasting styles. Both Carson and Redmond had placed the militias under their influence – the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish Volunteers respectively – at the behest of the War Office in return for certain concessions. Such horse-trading stuck in the craw of the martinet Kitchener who, as the Secretary of State for War, lost no time in attempting to cut the uppity Irishmen down to size.

“If I had been on a platform with you and Redmond, I should have knocked your heads together,” Kitchener told Carson.

“I’d like to see you try,” replied the other. This was delivered, according to one account, “in a slow drawling way, but with such a look as made Kitchener instantly change his tone.”

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John Redmond

Redmond, on the other hand, chose to stand on his wounded dignity. He had been, as he wrote to the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, after his own bruising encounter with Kitchener, “rather disquieted” by it. Nothing stronger was done or said.

Perhaps not coincidently, it was decided that the Ulster Volunteer Force could keep its identity within a separate army division. No such allowance was made for the Irish Volunteers.

But then, not rocking the boat had defined Redmond’s leadership of the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) ever since his election as a compromise candidate. It had been a turbulent decade for Nationalist Ireland in the wake of the Parnell Split of 1890, and it was thus fitting that the reunion of the IPP factions be conducted in as acrimonious manner as possible. As summed up by Jackson, Redmond’s elevation was decided by the Party bigwigs narrowing down to who was despised the least:

Tim Healy, believing that [John] Dillon preferred T.C. Harrington, and hating Dillon more than Redmond, had conspired to deliver the latter’s victory in 1900, while at the same time fully expecting him to lose: he regarded Redmond’s final election as simply a ‘fluke’, partly because at the last minute and unexpectedly, William O’Brien had intervened to offer his backing.

Redmond never forgot the tenuity of his authority, nor the underlying tensions it guarded over. “My chief anxiety ever since I have been Chairman of the Irish Party has been to preserve its unity,” he said – more than seven years later. Even an admirer of Redmond’s “impressive manner” could not help but wince at his “non-committal introductory address, which gave him a loophole of escape in every sentence.”

Following in the footsteps of Charles Parnell as the ‘Uncrowned King of Ireland’ was always going to be a tall order, but Redmond never really tried. When he described himself as the “servant of the Irish Party…I have never attempted in the smallest manner to impose my will upon the will of the Irish Party,” he was that rarest of creatures – an honest politician.

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Edward Carson

Honed by years of bare-knuckle courtroom drama, where he had excelled as a barrister, Carson presented a very different political beast. For one, unlike Redmond, he was not afraid to bite the hand that fed him. As MP for Dublin University (Trinity College), Carson took the lead in opposing the reforms of the Irish Land Bill of 1896, acting on behalf of his conservatively-minded constituents.

This was despite the fact that the bill was the brainchild of the brothers Arthur and Gerald Balfour. The latter, as Chief Secretary of Ireland from 1887 to 1891, had pushed for Carson’s advancement in the legal profession and then later his election to MP. Balfour was all too aware of this twisted turn of events, as he complained plaintively in the wake of a tongue-lashing from his former protégé:

Carson was the aggressor and made an entirely unprovoked attack. He had a perfect right to forget that I had promoted him above the heads of all his seniors to the highest place at the Irish bar, and that I had strained my influence…with Trinity College Dublin to get them, for the first time in their history, to elect as their representative one who then called himself a Liberal…But he had not the right to forget that we belonged to the same party and that as colleagues under most difficult and anxious circumstances we had fought side-by-side in many a doubtful battle.

For Carson, it was a case of putting principle before party, with personal friendships taking second place to whatever cause for which he was advocate.

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H.H. Asquith

Such prioritising made him a most mercurial ally. After serving a mere five months as attorney general in Asquith’s wartime government, he resigned in October 1915 and became an implacable opponent to the Prime Minister, pursuing him with the same doggedness he displayed in a courtroom until Asquith’s resignation at the end of 1916, a move largely accredited by Westminster insiders to Carson.

If Redmond lacked such a killer instinct, he compensated with an even temperament that allowed him to manage the complex and far-ranging responsibilities as IPP chairman. “Patient, careful, consensual – but occasionally capable to the necessary anger – he held together, from a position of weakness, this great national enterprise, and brought it to the cusp of victory in 1914,” Jackson writes.

Carson, in contrast, was on unsteady ground when not on the offensive. Having orchestrated Asquith’s fall and his replacement by David Lloyd George, Carson was promoted by the new prime minister to the Admiralty, a role in which he proved to be – so to speak – lost at sea.

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David Lloyd George

German submarines were reaping a devastating toll on British shipping, yet Carson had no ideas to offer a dispirited navy. It took a vigorous intervention by Lloyd George in August 1917, when he harangued the Admiralty Board from – tellingly enough – Carson’s seat at the table, to kick-start a more proactive policy. Carson was soon shuffled off to a harmless post elsewhere.

Jackson takes a surgical approach to his material, prising open the public personae of Carson and Redmond to find the complexities and contradictions beneath. At times he seems to enjoy teasing the boundaries of what we know – or think we do – about the two men. “Would a Carsonite leadership of the Irish Party have produced a different fate for constitutional nationalism?” he asks. “Would a more senatorial and oritund command of Ulster unionism have sustained a militant defiance of the British Government?” The pair, Jackson suggests, each had the right abilities for the wrong position.

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Political cartoon of Redmond and Carson

On a lighter note are the range of documents and memorandum on display here. They vary from satirical cartoon and political posters, to a postcard featuring Redmond’s pensive visage on one side and on the other a written comment from an appreciative – and apparently Unionist – woman: “Is not this photo nice. Though of wrong party, I would like to elope with him.”

Publisher’s Website: Royal Irish Academy

A Death in Athlone: The Controversial Case of George Adamson, April 1922

Knowing

In the dark, early hours of the 25th April 1922, tensions that had been simmering for weeks in the town of Athlone, Co. Westmeath, spilled over into bloodshed. Soon afterwards, the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the pro-Treaty military issued its report on the shocking event:

Shortly after midnight on Monday a party of officers left Custume Barracks, Athlone, and proceeded down the town to the Royal Hotel, outside of which they commandeered a motor car. When the party returned to the military barracks it was discovered that one officer was missing.[1]

A search party of four was sent out to find their errant comrade, sometime around 2 am. As they walked towards the Irishtown area of Athlone, they came across a man loitering in a shop doorway.

“Who are you?” asked one of the search party, Brigadier-General George Adamson.

“I know you, George. You know me, Adamson,” came the cryptic reply. Not satisfied, the officers demanded the stranger to put his hands up. When he remained as he was, Adamson levelled a revolver on him.

Suddenly there was a rush and the search party found themselves confronted in turn by a rival group of armed men. When they were disarmed – so read the GHQ report – the man in the doorway drew a revolver of his own and fired point blank through Adamson’s ear, into his head.[2]

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George Adamson (left) with two fellow officers in the Free State Army

Standing

However dreadful, the incident was not altogether surprising. It might even be said that something of its nature was inevitable, given the state of the country.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty signed five months earlier, in December 1921, by the British Government and the plenipotentiaries of Dáil Éireann had seen the end of one war and the stirrings of another. The country was instantly divided on the question of whether or not to accept such terms, a situation heightened rather than mollified when the Dáil narrowly voted to do so in January 1922.

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Irish delegates at the signing of the Treaty in London, December 1921

Nowhere were the divisions more keenly – or dangerously – felt than in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Before they had been united as brothers-in-arms against the might of the foreign oppressor. Now the enemy had agreed to a peace deal that few had expected, and not all wanted, as the insistence on the oath to the Crown made many think that the cure for their country was no better than the disease. With the British Army set to depart for good, each IRA man was left, not so much to savour the victory but to wonder where they stood in the new and uncertain situation.

Not that things worsened immediately. It took time for them to deteriorate to the point where a man would be shot in the head on the streets of Athlone. In the first few months after the Treaty, there was still chances to stand together. On the 28th January 1922, the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Midland IRA Division mustered openly for the first time since its inception. About eight hundred men assembled outside Athlone, much to the admiration of a journalist who commented about how:

Of fine physique and displaying efficient military training, the men made the most imposing spectacle as they marched through the town, headed by the Athlone brass band.

Thousands of spectators lined the pavements, including members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), who appeared greatly impressed at the display of the same men they had been trying to arrest months before.

The policemen might as well be graceful losers. ‘WHAT A CHANGE!’ read the headline of a local newspaper as it reported that it was the Athlone IRA Brigade who now granted permission to possess firearms, such as to an officer in the British garrison for a fowling piece. Policing patrols were being conducted jointly by the RIC and the IRA, but for the former this were to last only until its disbandment as per the terms of the Treaty.[3]

After all the violence, it looked to be an orderly transfer of authority, which some might have thought boded well for the future.

Remembering

As well as looking to the future, the men of the IRA found time to pay respects to the past. On the 6th February 1922, a Celtic cross was erected at Cornafulla, near Athlone, to the memory of James Tormey, killed almost a year before at that same site. Unveiling the monument was George Adamson in what must have been a poignant occasion for him, considering that he had been present at Tormey’s death.[4]

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The James Tormey Memorial at Cornafulla

Tormey had ordered a mobilisation of the local IRA unit with the intent of ambushing a Black-and-Tan patrol as they cycled by Cornafulla. As soon as the group of Tans came into sight on the 2nd February 1921, Tormey recklessly opened fire before the rest of the ambush party, which included Adamson, were ready.

The Tans instantly dismounted from their bicycles and shot back, forcing the IRA to beat a hasty retreat. Tormey was covering the escape when a Tan crept into a lane at a right angle from the main road, outflanking Tormey and shooting him in the head before he could react.

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RIC patrol on bicycles

In the confusion, and perhaps fearing another ambush, the Tans had cycled away, leaving Tormey’s body where it lay. Adamson and the others had managed to escape and later, under the cover of night, they removed the corpse by boat down the Shannon and buried it in secret. That was not the end of the matter, as the cadaver was dug up soon afterwards by Tans who took it to Athlone where Tormey’s father identified his son. Only then was the body allowed to rest in the family plot in Mount Temple.[5]

In time, Adamson’s own remains were buried there besides Tormey’s. “Sad to relate,” wrote an old comrade of theirs in later years, “their graves are grossly neglected, being covered with weeds and dirt. There is no monument or anything to mark the place.”[6]capture

Escaping

As patrols and searches by Crown forces increased, death was never far away. The Athlone IRA had become a victim of its own success, for the string of ambushes inflicted in the latter half of 1920 had stirred the British garrison into a vigorous response. Adamson would have a brush with mortality in March 1921 when he and another man, Gerald Davis, set out on a mission of their own.

Davis had arrived from Dublin at the behest of GHQ to help organise the Athlone IRA. He made the acquaintance of Adamson, then the Vice O/C of the Brigade, who impressed Davis as being “a fine type of man, well built, a good athlete and a very good fellow all round.”

The Brigade was in not such good shape, its members having scattered to avoid the attentions of the British authorities. Still, David was game and in Adamson he found a kindred soul. When they received word of two Tans who were in the company of a pair of local women, Davis and Adamson set out with revolvers to the farmhouse outside Athlone where the women lived.

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Black-and-Tans

They found one of the Tans in the yard and quickly disarmed him. Adamson stood guard over their captive – the intent being to rob them of arms rather than to kill – while Davis went in search of the other. When he found him hiding behind a clamp of turf, the Tan shot at him before making a break. David fired after the fleeing man, grazing his thigh but nothing more, the mismatched ammo in his Colt pistol rendering its aim difficult.

Davis doubled back at the sound of Adamson shouting to find that the prisoner had turned the tables and pinned Adamson to the ground. A big man, the Tan had wrestled the gun off his former captor and used it to shoot Adamson in the chest. Davis shot the Tan in the side, wounding him, just in time for the second foe to return.

Davis had by then been wounded as well, in the arm though he did not seem aware of when he had been hit. He fired at the second Tan to keep him back and then helped the bleeding Adamson to his feet. They both fled at this point, their plan in tatters. Adamson had lost his revolver in the tussle and they had failed to rob the Tans of theirs as intended, but at least they were alive, if barely in Adamson’s case.

They retreated across the Shannon to a friendly house where Adamson was treated for his chest wound. Davis’ arm went septic for a while but he recovered, as did Adamson who remained at large by the time the Truce came in July 1921. Davis was not so lucky, having been arrested in a British round-up and then – to add insult to injury – identified by one of the Tans he and Adamson had tried to mug.[7]

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Black-and-Tans hold up a suspect

It was all part of the trials and tribulations of running an insurgency but, with the signing of the Treaty, the war was done and the worst over. At least, that is what Adamson and his peers could have been forgiven for thinking.

Dividing

Colonel Anthony Lawlor’s first thought on the Treaty had been “we can’t touch that.” It did not give Ireland enough in his opinion, and Lawlor feared that the people would be content with that and go no further towards complete independence. Lawlor would be denied the luxury of such long-term thinking when Patrick Morrissey, the O/C of the Athlone Brigade, stalked into his office in the Athlone Military Barracks that was also the base for the IRA Midlands Division.

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Front gates to Custume Barracks, Athlone

Their commanding officer, Major-General Seán Mac Eoin, was away in Dublin, leaving Lawlor in charge. Dublin was also where Morrissey had just returned from, a forbidden visit that had marked the man with a new – and, as far as Lawlor was concerned, an unpleasantly defiant – demeanour as he stood before Lawlor, legs wide apart and a revolver protruding above his belt, having not bothered to salute him.

“We’ve decided to stand by the Republic,” Morrissey told him, according to Lawlor’s recollections.

“We’re all standing by the Republic,” Lawlor insisted.

You’re not,” Morrissey shot back.

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Richard Mulcahy

However dismayed, Lawlor could not have been hugely surprised, for the controversial IRA Convention had taken place the previous day, on the 28th March 1922, at the Mansion House in Dublin. It had been promised by the Minister of Defence, Richard Mulcahy, on behalf of the IRA GHQ as a way of settling the differences fostered by the Treaty. Mulcahy had then pulled a volte-face and banned attendance on threat of dismissal.

That so many IRA members, including some from the Athlone Brigade such as Morrissey, could be found in the Mansion House on the day, regardless of what had been ordered, did not bode well for the GHQ’s continued authority.

Reasserting

At that moment in Athlone Barracks, it was Lawlor’s own authority that he had to worry about. He stood up, thinking quickly, and told Morrissey to summon the men onto the parade ground. When they were assembled, Lawlor played the part of the army drill-sergeant.

“I blackguarded them,” he recalled. “Told them they were the worst looking crowd I’d ever seen, and that if they were going to fight for a Republic none of them was likely to accomplish very much.”

Lawlor began to drill them, an unexpected move that put him back in charge. He told them to stack their weapons in the armoury and gave them a five minute respite. When he called them again to the parade ground, he made sure they were well away from their arms, which were being stored surreptitiously away by those officers who had remained loyal to GHQ.

All the while, Lawlor carried a pistol in each hand and warned his men that he would shoot if they so much as challenged him. He did not dare not shoot, he told them candidly, if he wanted to continue in his command.

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Seán Mac Eoin

This was enough to overawe the men but not indefinitely. When the men realised they had been gulled, they clamoured to reclaim their stolen weapons. Mac Eoin returned to the Barracks to find near pandemonium as Lawlor and his handful of partisans, including Adamson, stood in a thin line between the armoury and their own enraged men.

While Lawlor had been subtle, Mac Eoin was direct. After calling the men into line, he challenged Morrissey, standing at the front of the ranks, if he was prepared to follow the orders of the Dáil.

Morrissey tried hedging, saying no but that he would still obey any that came from Mac Eoin. For Mac Eoin, this was not good enough, pointing out that he had no authority save what the Dáil granted him. When Morrissey refused to budge, Mac Eoin ripped his Sam Browne belt off him, swung him around and shoved him out through the Barracks’ door. Mac Eoin proceeded down the ranks, meting out the same rough treatment to all else who refused to toe the line.

“That was not in any code that I know,” Mac Eoin later admitted, “but it was an effective method of dealing with the situation.”[8]

Reassembling

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Royal Hotel, Athlone

Effective – up to a point. Banishing the dissenting officers was one thing, making them disappear quite another, as shown when they retreated to the Royal Hotel in Marydyke Street, Athlone. There, Morrissey addressed his compatriots from a window, appealing to them to not say or do anything that would shame the name of the Athlone Brigade.

To nip things in the bud, Mac Eoin issued a proclamation to the tradesmen of Athlone. All costs contracted by the IRA up to and including the 25th March would be honoured, after which he would not be responsible for any more unless a written order was presented, signed by his Divisional Quartermaster.

“I accept no liability for any Brigade order owing to the suspension of the Brigade,” Mac Eoin warned.

Lawlor clarified this in an interview with a local newspaper on the 4th April. He explained that certain officers of the Athlone Brigade had repudiated the authority of the Dáil, the IRA GHQ and Mac Eoin. Therefore, these malcontents had been suspended. The Athlone Brigade would continue under the authority of Brigadier Adamson, promoted from Vice O/C to acting commander. All further officers who refused to obey the orders from their lawful superiors were to be regarded no longer as soldiers but civilians.[9]

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IRA members

But Lawlor was trying to shut the door to a half-empty stable. Two days earlier, Morrissey had led six hundred men from the Athone Brigade in officially breaking ties with their pro-Treaty colleagues. He announced to the parade of men that he had received word from the IRA Executive, formed from the Anti-Treatyite leaders at the March Convention, to reaffirm their allegiance to the Republic.

The men uncovered their heads and stood with raised hands as Morrissey administrated the oath of loyalty to them. Afterwards, Morrissey again impressed upon them the importance of discipline, and specifically not to interfere with the men on the other side.

An incident on that same day hinted at how matters were escalating beyond words and proclamations. Sergeant-Major Shields had left the Barracks – renamed the Custume Barracks in honour of the 17th century defender of Athlone – seemingly as a deserter. When two pro-Treaty officers stopped him in the street, Shields made a grab for the revolver of one before attempting to run and received a warning to stop, followed by a bullet to the leg when he did not.

Despite the drama, Shields did not seem to belong to either faction, as evidenced by the lack of reaction. A certain kind of peace was allowed to continue for the next six days.[10]

Clearing

On the evening of the 8th April, Mac Eoin entered the Royal Hotel, now the full-time base of the anti-Treaty IRA in Athlone. Morrissey was absent, leaving McGlynn, the acting commander present, to be told by Mac Eoin that he and his men were to depart by 9 am the next day. Shortly afterwards, a priest, Father Columba, also visited the hotel and advised the men there to comply.

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IRA members

Morning came to find the Anti-Treatyites still defiantly inside. Colonel Lawlor made his way towards the hotel shortly before 2 pm, meeting McGlynn on the way. When McGlynn again declined to vacate, he was arrested and taken to Custume Barracks. Lawlor repeated the demand to the next acting commander in the hotel, Captain Hughes, who likewise refused.

A quarter of an hour later, Lawlor had summoned enough of his soldiers to surround the Royal Hotel, complete with machine-guns. The garrison remained where they were behind the barricaded windows and sang The Soldier’s Song, the unofficial anthem of the revolution since its early years.

Conflict seemed imminent and all civilians nearby hurriedly made themselves scarce. Another priest, Father James, appeared on the scene to appeal for calm for the sake of the women and children in the surrounding houses. This managed to bring the leaders of the respective sides together and, after some discussion, it was agreed that the Anti-Treatyites would indeed leave the Royal Hotel by 5 pm that day. They could take their equipment with them and McGlynn would be released.

With that, the Pro-Treatyites withdrew to their Barracks. The other faction was as good as its word. At the designated time, about fifty men could be seen leaving the hotel, marching – according to a local newspaper – “good-humouredly away.”[11]

Returning

Even if genuine, the good humour did not last long.

On the 11th April, the anti-Treaty IRA returned to reoccupy the Royal Hotel, along with a grocery store that lay directly opposite, as well rooms over a bakery on the same street. Barricades were quickly erected in the windows of these buildings, with armed guards seen behind them by the inhabitants of Mardyke Street, many of whom swiftly fled for fear of an imminent battle.

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Marydyke Street, Athlone

Their concerns appeared well-founded when Mac Eoin arrived with a force of his own men from Custume Barracks, who occupied in turn a shop and a residence on Mardyke Street, as well as a store on the adjacent Dublin Street, after which they set up barricades of their own.

War seemed inevitable until four priests – including Father James from before – intervened and induced Mac Eoin and his opposing counterpart, Commandant-General Seán Fitzpatrick, to meet. After a short exchange, an adjournment for an hour was agreed upon.

During this lull, the priests requested all public-houses to close. “Business was at a stand-still, and the people moved about in suspense,” reported the Irish Times.

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IRA members

As a result of a subsequent meeting between the two leaders, conflict was again averted, much to the relief of the citizens. For the past few days, they had been helpless witnesses to the manoeuvrings and military brinkmanship conducted in their own town.

The Anti-Treatyites were to stay in Athlone, based once more in the Royal Hotel, and there the situation remained until fourteen days later, on the night of the 25th April, when a hapless George Adamson was shot in the head.[12]

Confronting

Mac Eoin was the first to arrive on the scene. At the inquest in Athlone the next day, Mac Eoin told of what he had seen and done that night.

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A pensive Seán Mac Eoin stares out of a window in Sligo, 1922

He had returned from Tralee, Co. Kerry, the previous evening, and was staying at the house of a friend, Mr Duffy, when he heard four shots that sounded as if they had come from directly outside. Springing out of bed, Mac Eoin whipped up the revolver from where he had left it on a table and dashed to the window. Leaning out, he heard the sounds of running footsteps and saw a man in a laneway opposite the house.

Mac Eoin called out: “Halt! Who goes there?”

“Friend,” came the odd reply, perhaps made just to avoid being shot at.

From where he was, Mac Eoin thought he could make out in the dark the object on the ground outside. As he did so, someone shouted: “A man is dying on the street!”

Throwing on some clothes, Mac Eoin rushed out to find Adamson on his back, blood pouring out of his ear. Mac Eoin raised him up in his arms and sent Duffy, who had come out to assist, for a doctor and a priest, the last a sober acknowledgement of Adamson’s chances. A strong man, Mac Eoin carried the victim inside, before heading off towards the Royal Hotel.

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Athlone

On the way, he met Duffy and Father Columba, one of the four priests who had helped arrange the truce – for what it was worth – a fortnight ago. Duffy told him of how he had been held up on the street by masked men while looking for the priest.

That made Mac Eoin all the more determined to reach the Royal Hotel, where he found several Anti-Treatyites, including Commandant-General Fitzpatrick from before. Mac Eoin asked Fitzpatrick if all his men were inside and accounted for. When Fitzpatrick replied in the affirmative, Mac Eoin retorted that there was no use spouting such falsehoods. George Adamson had been murdered, Mac Eoin said, and demanded to know what Fitzpatrick knew of it.

Fitzpatrick, according to Mac Eoin’s testimony, replied: “Be straight with me and I will be straight with you. Four men arrived here tonight, and were talking business with me. They went out and returned, saying that their car was gone, and went out again in less than ten minute afterwards. I heard shouting.”

Fitzpatrick added that he did not know the names of these four. One of the other Anti-Treatyites present piped up to say that he did not know the men either, only that they appeared to be acquainted with Captain Macken, who had ordered that they be admitted in the first place

For his part, Macken said that he only knew one of them, this being a Commandant Burke, which was not a name that meant anything to Mac Eoin.

Also present was Gerald Davis, Adamson’s partner in the botched robbery on the Tans. Upon release from prison as per the terms of the Truce, Davis had re-joined the Athlone Brigade, taking the opposite side to Adamson on the Treaty question. When asked in turn, Davis admitted to knowing the foursome but refused to divulge their names.[13]

Arresting

The news of the shooting seems to have rattled Fitzpatrick as much as enraged Mac Eoin. After Mac Eoin departed from the hotel, Fitzpatrick came to a decision and dispatched a message after the other man to inform him of it:

In view of the attitude which you adopt as a consequence of the regrettable shooting which occurred some hours ago, I have, after consultation with my officers, and with a view of avoiding bloodshed, decided on leaving the Royal Hotel, and taking up quarters elsewhere.

I repeat that the responsibility for the shooting rests not with me. I sincerely regret the occurrence.

Mac Eoin was not mollified. At 6 am, his Pro-Treatyites surrounded the hotel, with Mac Eoin issuing an ultimatum to Fitzpatrick inside:

I hereby charge you and all officers and men in the Royal Hotel with unlawfully conspiring with a commandant and others, unknown, to slay and murder Brigadier-General Adamson, O.C., Athlone Brigade, IRA.

I further charge the Commandant mentioned, and others known to you, with the murder of the above named officer. I hereby call on you to surrender all men and officers in the Royal Hotel on receipt of this, allowing 15 minutes for reply of surrender, and after the expiration of that time I [will] open fire, and do so as the lawful authority, charged with the peace of the district.

Knowing he was beaten, Fitzpatrick wrote back:

In reply to your demand, I have no choice but to surrender. I must assert that I am not in any way responsible for the shooting.

Fitzpatrick’s attempt to retreat with dignity intact had been coldly denied. He bowed to the inevitable and surrendered, being led away with his men to detainment inside Custume Barracks.[14]

Mourning

Adamson died a few hours after being shot, by which time a crowd had gathered outside his hospital to pray for his recovery. The lowering of the tricolour over Athlone Castle was enough to break the news to them and the rest of the town, where he had been known and well-liked.

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Athlone Castle

The 25-year-old native of Moate, Co. Westmeath, had had a brief but eventful life. Previous to his service in the Athlone IRA, he had fought during the Great War, earning a Mons Star and a Distinguished Conduct Medal for conspicuous bravery. That this had been part of the same British Army he would later oppose was one of the many ironies of the period, as was the grim fact that his end had come not at German or British hands, but that of his fellow countrymen.

Fittingly, IRA members and ex-servicemen from the British Army were among the ten thousand-strong crowd who attended the funeral two days later. All business was suspended in Athlone and Moate, with shops closed and window blinds drawn, as the guards of honour, in full uniform and holding their rifles reversed, accompanied the tricoloured-draped coffin as it was carried through the streets of Athlone on the shoulders of Adamson’s colleagues.

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Adamson’s funeral procession moving through Athlone

Mac Eoin in particular was hit hard by the killing. Among the speakers at the funeral, he was “visibly affected,” according to a local newspaper, as he “delivered a short oratory at the graveside, and paid a glowing tribute to the many qualities of the deceased.”[15]

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Harry Boland

At the next session of the Dáil in Dublin on the 26th April 1922, President Arthur Griffith spoke of the “foully murdered” Adamson, who “died for his country as truly as any man ever died for it.” When Harry Boland was unwise enough to refer to “unfortunate business in Athlone”, the pro-Treaty benches reacted like a scalded cat.

“Surely, by goodness, it has not come to this, that the shooting of a man is to be treated as ‘business’,” lambasted W.T. Cosgrave. “The Deputy, who may have made it in the heat of the moment, has now time to alter it.”

“Of course I did not mean to suggest that murder is a business,” Boland said hastily.

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W.T. Cosgrave

But Cosgrave was merciless: “’Unfortunate business’ is what you said.”

“’The unfortunate death of a soldier in Athlone’,” Boland amended, backtracking in full.

“That is better,” Cosgrave allowed. “A little bit better.”[16]

Inquiring

At the inquest in Athlone on the 26th April, the day after the shooting, the jury had some choice things to say, not least about the state of the country in general:

We desire to express our abhorrence of this and other un-Irish acts, now of too common occurrence, and while trying to be impartial, we desire to protest against the robberies, raids, stealing from trains, and stealing of motor cars in this district, and we call on the authorities to put it down at once.

J.H. Dixon, the solicitor for the pro-Treaty military authorities, expressed, on his own behalf and for the people of Athlone, sympathy for Adamson’s father, who was present with other relatives. Seán Mac Eoin seconded this, adding that the late Brigadier-General had been a man the Army was proud to have had. His family did not need to be assured of the sympathy of the Army, for they had full evidence of it already. As further proof of Adamson’s valour, his father was handed the four medals he had won for distinguished service in the Great War.

After Mac Eoin had testified to what he had seen that night, it was the turn of Dr MacDonnell. He told of how he had found the victim unconscious in Mr Duffy’s house, where Mac Eoin had brought him. Together with a second doctor to arrive, they had plugged the large wound in the left ear. With some effort, they succeeded in partly reviving Adamson, who managed to utter a request to be taken home. After bandaging his head, the doctors helped their patient to the barracks.

Next up on the stand was the military surgeon. He had examined the body that morning, and told of how he had found two wounds, an entrance wound high up on the back of the head, the other an exit wound in the left ear. In his opinion, death had been due to shock, haemorrhage and compression of the brain.

An eyewitness to the shooting, Lieutenant O’Meara, reiterated much of what had already been reported. He had been one of the four-strong party who went out that night with Adamson. When they returned to their barracks, two of their number were noticed to be missing. It was while searching for them in Athlone that they spied a man in a doorway.

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George Adamson

When Adamson challenged the stranger, while ordering Lieutenant Walsh to cover him with a revolver, the man had merely said: “It is all right, George, I know you, and you know me,” adding, “you are George Adamson, and you know something about the car that is gone.”

Eight others suddenly appeared, shouting: “Hands up! We mean it, George. Put up your hands!”

After the four Pro-Treatyites were disarmed, O’Meara heard several shots ring out, followed by the sight of Adamson crumpling to the ground.

The coroner for Co. Westmeath concluded from the hearing that this had been an act of murder, pure and simple. He left the matter with the jury, who returned to deliver the same verdict as the coroner. Which was reasonable enough – it did not seem like a complicated case, after all.[17]

Replying

It was a sign of the times that the official report would so casually, almost innocently, mention officers of its own army engaging in car theft, a detail honed in by Thomas Johnson, Secretary of the Labour Party, in a letter sent on the 27th April to the press.

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Thomas Johnson

“By what authority have military officers commandeered a motor car outside a hotel?” Johnson demanded. “Does this not indicate a state of mind alien to the conception of civil law?”

The stolen vehicle would play a larger role in the statement released by the Four Courts, the base of operations for the anti-Treaty IRA leadership, and written by Timothy Buckley, Quartermaster of the Third Southern Division (encompassing Offaly, Laois and North Tipperary). Buckley had been present that night in Athlone and so was able to give the Anti-Treatyites’ version of events:

On the night of the 24th inst., I, with the Commandant [Tom Burke], Adjutant [Joseph Reddin], and Q.M. [Seán Robbins] of Offaly, No. 2 Brigade, motored to Athlone to see Commandant General Fitzpatrick, re transfer of arms.

While engaged with him in his quarters, our motor was stolen from where we had it outside the door. We followed in the direction in which we believed the car had been taken, but could not find the party who took the car.

The men heard their vehicle being driven through a backstreet, towards the Custume Barracks. As the military compound was in Pro-Treatyite hands, they knew they would not be retrieving their car anytime soon. For lack of other options, the four stranded men proceeded into town to find another car to hire for their return journey to Birr, Co. Offaly.

But the theft was not to be the end of that night’s drama for them:

We called up a Mr. Poole in the adjoining street, and were just asking for one of his cars when the Q.M. [Robbins], Offaly, No. 2, was held up about ten yards from where Commandant Burke and I were standing.

In the brief scuffle, Robbins was able to disarm two of his assailants. As Reddin and Burke came to his assistance, the other men ran away, with only one of them stubbornly holding his ground with his hands in his pocket. Burke was confronting this man, who they later learnt was Adamson, when they were abruptly fired upon from the other side of the street.

In the dark, Buckley could not see who the shooter was. He fired back twice with his automatic, and the mystery gunman ran off, pausing only to fire several more times at them from further up the street.

Such was the confusion that Buckley was not sure what was going on, only that he saw Adamson suddenly collapse in the middle of the street. With the shooter now gone, the four Anti-Treatyites rushed to the fallen man’s aid.

We took him off the street and tried to get him to sit upright, but we saw and believed that he was almost beyond human aid. In order to give his friends a chance of helping him, we left the street in their possession, left the town on foot and walked as far as our Divisional area.

“The death of Commandant Adamson is very much regretted,” Commandant Burke added in a brief footnote to Buckley’s statement, as he stressed his group’s lack of complicity.[18]

Brooding

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Noel Browne

One of the residents of Athlone was the future politician, Dr Noel Browne. Then six years of age, he was woken by his father, who urged his children to lie flat on the floor. From outside came the sounds of gunfire, mixed with those of running feet. A voice shouted out “don’t shoot!”, though Browne was unsure as to whether that particular auditory detail had actually occured or if he only imagined it.

But the blood on the street the next morning was real enough, dried and black and still visible despite the efforts to hide it with a potato sack. The memory of “this awful example of a man’s unique capacity to kill cruelly a fellow man” stayed with Browne. In 1948, twenty-six years afterwards, he met Mac Eoin, both now ministers in the Inter-Party Government. Browne told him about that night in Athlone, when he had first heard the older man’s voice outside his bedroom window. The two became friends as well as co-workers, with Browne thinking Mac Eoin, then in his fifties, a “gentle peaceful man.”[19]

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Cabinet of the Inter-Party Government, 1948, with Noel Brown (far left, front row) and Seán Mac Eoin (standing, second from the right)

Time had perhaps mellowed the old warrior. Mac Eoin would emerge from that fateful night a changed soul. Before, he had been noted for his chivalry, such as when he had spared Auxiliaries captured at the Granard Ambush of February 1921, going so far as to have the wounded tended to. The Mac Eoin after Adamson’s death was a harder, colder character, with no patience now for talk of peace and compromise.

When the Dáil met the next month in May 1922 to discuss a possible ceasefire between the increasingly fractious IRA sects, his was the dissenting voice as he expressed incredulity that things could be resolved so amiably. Instead, he called for a tougher line on those he saw as the villains of the piece.

“Men are engaged in the pursuit of men charged with serious offences,” he lectured the other TDs. “Justice demands that certain things be done.”[20]

Soon afterwards in September, with the Civil War in full swing, Mac Eoin told the Dáil that: “If I was sure of the man who murdered General Adamson, and if I met him on the street, I would shoot him.”

This was said as part of the proposal to establish army courts to deal with the anti-Treaty prisoners. Once again, Thomas Johnson acted as the closest thing the Dáil had to an opposition leader as he pushed for these courts to be headed by a legal professional, instead of being purely military in nature. To Mac Eoin, however, only a soldier could appreciate the situation of another.

“The reason I would shoot him then,” he continued, “was because there was no law but the law that was vested in me as the Competent Authority of the area. Pass the law that is now asked, and there would be no necessity for me to shoot him, because there would be a legal method of dealing with that individual.”[21]

Later that session, he dismissed the idea that an armistice could be arranged. “It will be the same as the last truce,” he warned, having learnt the limits of patience. “It will be all one-sided, and you cannot have that.”[22]

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Seán Mac Eoin (seated, second from left in the front row) with a number of his officers, including George Adamson (second from left back row), in a photograph taken at Athlone Castle, February 1922

Even years afterwards, Mac Eoin never wavered in his belief that Adamson’s death had been cold-blooded murder. When he wrote to the Pensions Board in 1929 on behalf of Adamson’s mother to urge for financial assistance, he told of how and why her son had met his end: “The rest of the officers of the Brigade who had turned Irregular always regarded Adamson as a traitor, that he let them down by his action at the meeting.”[23]

Blaming

Some on the anti-Treaty side nursed their own theories.

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Uiseann MacEoin

Liam Carroll was among those Anti-Treatyites present in Athlone that night, along with five others inside Claxton’s Hotel. When they heard shots outside, they quickly hurried out of town by foot, leaving their car behind in their haste to avoid trouble. Such was the confusion that Carroll was able to return the next day and retrieve their vehicle, which had been left untouched. He had not witnessed what happened, but later told the historian Uinseann MacEoin (no relation to Seán Mac Eoin) how “Republicans believe [the shooting] was done by one of [Mac Eoin’s] bodyguards.”[24]

Another Anti-Treatyite who had been stationed in the area, Walter Mitchell, went further, suggesting to Uinseann MacEoin that it had been Seán Mac Eoin himself who had been responsible. As for the possible reasons why, Mac Eoin was jealous of the other man, “being good in an ordinary scrap, [but] he was completely uneducated”, while Adamson “had far more military science.”

In contrast, Mitchell believed that “no Republican would set out to slay George Adamson.” After all, the Adamson Mitchell remembered had been a “fine soldier, hot-tempered and all that, but he was able to handle men well, including parade formation on the barrack square.” Still, Mitchell appeared less aggrieved at his slaying and more about how the Pro-Treatyites had exploited it for sympathy purposes.[25]

Deciding

Meeting such accusations head on fuelled Mac Eoin at the second inquiry, held on the 25th May, at the Newman House on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin, site of the National University. Unlike the first inquiry, which had been dominated by the Pro-Treatyites, this one consisted of attendees from both sides. To stave off further violence, a truce had been signed by the military heads of each IRA faction and, for a while, a spirit of reconciliation pervaded the country, with fraternal ties tentatively renewed and even talk of the two sundered wings reuniting.

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Newman House, Dublin

But Mac Eoin was in a far from obliging mood when he took the stand inside the Newman House. Dismissing the rumour that he had been the one responsible for Adamson’s shooting as a mere “propaganda stunt”, he argued for the impossibility of such a notion on the grounds that “you cannot shoot unless you fire. You cannot kill unless you fire. My revolver is as full now as it was that day. There is none out of it since.”

He retold his version of that night in Athlone, giving his audience the impression that Adamson had been anticipating something would happen – and that he and Mac Eoin had been unusually close for a commander and his subordinate. In court, Mac Eoin pointed to a ring he was wearing, and told how Adamson, while visiting him at Mr O’Duffy’s house, had taken the ring off his own finger and put it on Mac Eoin’s, saying: “Every time you look at that, think of me.”

Soon after, Mac Eoin continued, when he saw Adamson stricken in the street, he thought back on the ring and wondered if Adamson had had some information about an attempt to be made on his life. Instead of telling Mac Eoin about it, he had gone out to face it alone.

“I know that is not so,” added Mac Eoin on the stand, “but that is what appeared to me at that moment.”

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P.J. Ruttledge

Certain statements Mac Eoin had made to the press came under scrutiny when P.J. Ruttledge, the legal counsel for the anti-Treaty IRA, cross-examined him. If Mac Eoin had been in a righteously angry mood, then Ruttledge sought to match him, outrage by outrage.

Ruttledge: Are you aware that that has gone through three-quarters of the earth, blackguarding a force –?

Mac Eoin: It has just gone as far as the propaganda has gone that I shot him from the window. That statement is an answer to the other.

Ruttledge: You say a certain man did a certain thing. I want to know have you evidence on which to base that charge?

Mac Eoin: There will be evidence here on which to base that charge.

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Tom Hales

The atmosphere was sufficiently testy at one point for Tom Hales, the president of the court, to ask J. H. Dixon, again the solicitor for the Pro-Treatyites, to moderate his choice of words.

“I wish you would leave out the word ‘murder’ altogether,” Hales said.

“Very well, sir, ‘causing death’,” Dixon said, before adding: “Causing death is very obnoxious. At the same time, I think it will get down to a stage when we cannot have any fineness about words.”

Much of the inquiry was spent recapping the two different, and contradictory, versions of Adamson’s demise. The witnesses from the pro-Treaty forces had it that their late comrade had been callously gunned down, while those for the Anti-Treatyites insisted that his death had been the result of an alteration that spiralled out of control and where, given the confusion, it was impossible to determine culpability.[26]

When the court reassembled on the 1st June to announce its verdict, it showed it had decided on the more cautious interpretation:

We find that the much-regretted and tragic death of the late Brigadier Adamson, Athlone Brigade, Midland Division, I.R.A., resulted from a series of events on the night of the 25th April, accompanied by indiscretions on both sides.

Following the seizure of a car from the Executive Forces, I.R.A., at a late hour that resulted in a hold-up of a man who happened to be an officer of the [anti-Treaty] Forces. Concurrently his commander arrived on the scene, and the discharge of a single shot immediately brought about a burst of firing, in the course of which Brigadier Adamson was fatally wounded by some persons unknown.

The Court cannot determined from the evidence the responsibility for the discharge of the first shot, whether accidental or otherwise, but express the firm conviction that the shooting of Brigadier Adamson was not premeditated.[27]

Given the lack of hard evidence and conflicting viewpoints, there was perhaps little else the court could have said. George Adamson’s death remained, and continues to be so, a mystery.

References

[1] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[2] Ibid

[3] Westmeath Examiner, 04/02/1922

[4] Ibid, 11/02/1922

[5] Lennon, Patrick (BMH / WS 1336), pp. 10-1

[6] O’Meara, Seumas (BMH / WS 1504), p. 47

[7] David, Gerald (BMH / WS 1361), pp. 12-4, 16

[8] Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970), pp. 241, 255-6

[9] Westmeath Examiner, 01/04/1922

[10] Irish Times, 04/04/1922

[11] Ibid, 11/04/1922

[12] Ibid, 12/04/1922

[13] Ibid, 27/04/1922

[14] Ibid, 26/04/1922

[15] Westmeath Guardian, 28/04/1922

[16] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, August 1921 – June 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922]), pp. 235-6

[17] Irish Times, 27/04/1922

[18] Ibid, 28/04/1922

[19] Browne, Noel. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987), pp. 5-6

[20] Dáil Éireann, August 1921 – June 1922, p. 368

[21] Dáil Éireann. Official Report, September – December 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [Dublin]), p. 899

[22] Ibid, p. 947

[23] Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017), p. 131

[24] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), pp. 269-70

[25] Ibid, pp. 386-7

[26] Irish Times, 26/05/1922

[27] Ibid, 02/06/1922

Bibliography

Newspapers

Irish Times

Westmeath Examiner

Westmeath Guardian

Books

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

Dáil Éireann. Official Report, September – December 1922 (Dublin: Stationery Office [1922])

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

Browne, Noel. Against the Tide (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1987)

Younger, Calton. Ireland’s Civil War (Fontana/Collins, 1970)

Bureau of Military History Statements

Davis, Gerald, WS 1361

Lennon, Patrick, WS 1336

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Military Service Pensions Collection

Adamson, George (Military Archives, 2/D/2,) http://mspcsearch.militaryarchives.ie/docs/files//PDF_Pensions/R3/2D2GEORGEADAMSON/W2D2GEORGEADAMSON.pdf (Accessed 03/05/2017)