‘Sublime in Theory’
For good or bad, Peadar O’Donnell never failed to leave an impression on people.
During the lull in the war between British authority in Ireland and the Irish Republican Army (IRA), Todd Andrews – not even twenty years of age and already a seasoned combatant – was ordered up from Dublin to Dungloe, Co. Donegal, to take charge of an IRA training camp, sometime in the latter half of 1921. A city-slicker, Andrews knew little about the county, only that it had felt its fair share of the conflict: shootings, house-burnings, attacks of police barracks, and ambushes on British troop-trains.
It thus seemed like an obvious place to invest some time and guidance into. ‘Advancing under fire’, ‘organisation of intelligence units’, ‘use and care of small arms’, along with night-marches and how best to make use of cover – these were among the subjects Andrews prepared to drum into the fifteen men gathered before him in the Dungloe village hall. He had his doubts, however, as to how much he could get through to them, the jackeen prejudice against culchies as slow-witted and thick-tongued being hard to shake off.
Besides, Andrews was painfully aware of his own deficiency, namely his rawness as a teacher, and it was with trepidation that he opened with a lesson about unit structure and communication. When this was done, he scanned the group, hoping for someone who could help turn the lecture into a dialogue, and asked the man who appeared older than the rest – at twenty-eight – for his thoughts:
He stood up immediately, pouring out a stream of words arranged in fluent, well balanced sentences full of striking imagery and laced with quotations from James Connolly.
This was rather more than Andrews had been expecting or, indeed, wanted, for if this was the standard of the class, what need would they have of him as an educator? Thankfully:
As it turned out I had no need to feel inadequate because the speaker was Peadar O’Donnell who was to become one of the most remarkable men of our generation.
Some acquaintances were less enthralled. Michael O’Donoghue and Tom Barry were among the Corkmen who, like Andrews, were sent to Donegal; in their case, it was in mid-1922, in order to continue the campaign against the remaining British presence in what would become Northern Ireland. O’Donoghue was to reminisced about the “lively and protracted discussions on religion, sin and nationality” between the Cork and Donegal officers. As the two eldest members, Barry and O’Donnell tended to take the lead in these IRA symposiums and were consequently held in awe by the others, including O’Donoghue.
To him, O’Donnell’s:
…vocabulary was vast and his speech eloquent, and it was a pleasure and an education to hear him airing his views on a variety of subjects.
But, if O’Donnell was a jack of all trades, he could be a master of none, at least where it counted, being:
…a revolutionary thinker and writer, was of the rover type, too volatile for an efficient Volunteer officer, sublime in theory – military, economic, social, political – but in practice a wash-out. He had no control over the IRA under him and was constitutionally unfit for military campaigning of any kind, guerrilla above all.
O’Donnell would have been the first to agree. “I must say I was not the military type,” he later said in an interview.
‘Four Glorious Years’
It would be easy to take such self-abasement at face value, given how little O’Donnell is known as a soldier. As a writer and a political activist, yes, he was to have prolific careers as both in the years to come. But about his IRA service, he seems to have worked his hardest to obscure it. Not for him the reminiscences of Tom Barry, Todd Andrews or Dan Breen, whose tales of daring-do in their memoirs were to keep their names visible to contemporary times.
“It is difficult to persuade Peadar O’Donnell to talk about his military career,” noted historian Michael McInerney. He had the advantage of interviewing O’Donnell but even that familiarity yielded scant insight into what his subject had been doing during the War of Independence: “He was reluctant to talk of his own part in the national struggle until convinced that the interest in the subject was as much general as particular.”
Those days were possibly still too raw to approach easily, for while “talking to Peadar O’Donnell about the ‘Four Glorious Years’ of 1918-22, one senses a deep, almost bitter disappointment in the words at the outcome of those years.” Though there was “also an exultation as he remembers the heroism and the ‘sheer genius of a whole people in action’,” O’Donnell stayed tight-lipped about his own actions.
Maybe O’Donnell was just a modest man. Or perhaps that time had been too complicated to fully – or easily – explain.
Be that as it may, there was nothing of the shrinking violet or indecisive intellectual when, in December 1920, O’Donnell spoke at the Shamrock Hall in Derry. His intent, he told the IRA Volunteers who used the building as their base, was to find recruits and bring them over the county border to his native Donegal as a flying column.
At least one man present, Seamus McCann, had met O’Donnell before, when the latter worked as an organiser for the Derry branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union (ITGWU), back in 1918. “We knew he was alright,” recalled McCann; after all, he and O’Donnell had cooperated in smuggling weapons for the national cause, starting with two pistols and a few bags of gelignite at McCann’s shop in 1919. Though nothing came of a plan of O’Donnell’s in 1920 to rob a police patrol of their guns, he continued using McCann’s premises as a stash-house:
Detonators and gelignite came to my place for him from Scotland; I’d say three times in all, the last being in a suitcase of stuff around the end of 1919 or early 1920.
By IRA standards, O’Donnell was a well-travelled man, as recognised by Joe Sweeney, a Donegal IRA commander, who used him to transport munitions. On one such occasion, late in 1919, it was bombs from Dublin to Donegal, and on others:
Early in 1920 I asked him to go to Scotland to organise the help which Donegal men in the mines there were attempting to give in the way of explosives. I sent him across three times, I think, around St Patrick’s Day 1920 and the last certainly in July 1920.
“His work was extremely useful,” Sweeney added. O’Donnell had earned his trust when, at the end of 1920, he suggested returning to Derry, whose revolutionary landscape he was familiar with, and coming back with a unit of his own to Sweeney’s territory in West Donegal. Sweeney gave this idea his blessing, and off O’Donnell went to turn theory into practice.
The Column Forms
O’Donnell’s recruitment drive in the Shamrock Hall paid off in the nine Volunteers who offered themselves for his venture. As part of a flying column, they would be expected to bear the brunt of the fighting against the Crown forces in Ireland but, then, Derry already was a warzone.
The city had not exactly been peaceful before, but things escalated with an ambush of two policemen of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) at the General Post Office in November 1920, wounding one. The resulting stop-and-searches of pedestrians by police and British soldiers grew into arson and shootings, and were matched by IRA reprisals of a similar nature.
“There was the wildest scenes of terrorism and destruction yet experienced in parts of Derry,” reported one newspaper under the headline DERRY NIGHT OF TERROR.
Perhaps the Derry men who agreed to go to Donegal did so for an escape as much as anything.
First, they were careful to take with them the necessary tools, as O’Donnell described: “In December 1920 we brought 22 rifles out of Derry. We dug them up in a briar in a city. They were in quite good condition with 200 rounds for each of them.”
One presumes permission was obtained from the Derry IRA command; certainly, of the accusations to come against O’Donnell, none involved theft. O’Donnell was characteristically modest when recalling the inauguration of the column, saying that “it shows how hard up they were for leaders when they had to send a man like me out in charge of a column.”
Maybe. In the months to come, O’Donnell’s credentials would be a matter of controversy. All the same, a rifles was a prized weapon, and ammunition of any kind a valuable resource, so this contribution by Derry showed considerable investment in the new column, as well as faith in its commandant.
The Column Departs
For now, any doubt lay in the future, and the only question worth asking was how to get out of Derry. This was not a simple matter, as British soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment were guarding the roads leading out of the city. The IRA men were able to sneak out during the night, though three of them – McCann, James McKee and Tom Sullivan – got lost in the dark. Separated from the rest, the men, as McCann recalled:
…tramped near the main road until we came to near Letterkenny. It was now beginning to get clear in the morning so we went into an old coal shed near the Post Bridge and left our rifles down and rested on some straw for a short while.
McCann ventured out to Letterkenny and made contact with a friend and fellow rebel there, who arranged for a car to pick up the stray trio and drive them to the family in whose house the rest of the column had stopped. After spending the following night there, two cars were procured for the rest of the way, though they were delayed at Glendowan by its ruined bridge. The IRA in this instance had become a victim of its own success:
At this time many bridges on main roads were blown up by the IRA and trenches were also cut in the main roads to obstruct motor traffic by crown forces.
There was nothing else to do but disembark from the vehicles and march through the pouring rain, ignoring as best they could the growing blisters on their feet, until they came to the village of Derryhenney. There they stayed the night before finally reaching West Donegal, on the night of the new year, the 1st January 1921.
While resting their legs in an old house in Dungloe, the men received word that a stranger – always a source of interest – had arrived by train and was now staying in a local hotel. It was a good enough cause for action, according to McCann:
Three members of the column then proceeded to Sweeney’s Hotel [no relation to Joe Sweeney, presumably] and brought this man to where we were billeted. The stranger turned out to be a British military officer. He was carrying a gun which we took from him.
The man had attempted to draw this pistol when the three men – including Frank O’Donnell, Peadar’s brother – approached him during lunch, but he was quickly disarmed and hauled away for questioning. After claiming to be a harmless civil servant, he admitted his true identity as an enemy officer while insisting that he was only in the area to investigate claims made against the British garrison. Whatever the truth, he was released that night when a Unionist businessman intervened to the IRA authority on his behalf.
Things were not so ruthless in Donegal for prisoners to be killed in cold blood, even if there was a war on. Indeed, Frank O’Donnell preferred disarming policemen of their guns than shooting them. His approach required more courage, he told the others.
The Column Begins
After their arrival, the column had three days of rest at the townland of Crovegh, four miles from Dungloe, before news reached them, on the 4th January 1921, that a squad of Black-and-Tans were heading towards Dungloe. As it was market day, the column members, joined by the domestic IRA company under the command of Joe Sweeney, cleared the village streets and took up position. Two women kept the men going with hot tea as they waited, guns at the ready, day turning into the night, but the Tans never showed.
A second report, this time of Tans coming from a different direction, prompted the column to set up an ambush along the road from Dungloe to Crolly’s Bridge. It was raining heavily, but there the men remained for the whole day until, with the foe again nowhere to be seen, they withdrew to O’Donnell’s family home at Munroe. His mother gave them the consolation of a warm meal and a place by the turf-fire to dry off.
Todd Andrews was also to meet Brigid O’Donnell and paid tribute to her as “a woman of very fine quality, shrewd and full of common sense, who was content with her life despite what must have been a hard struggle to rear her children.” It was easy, Andrews thought, to see where her son had obtained his intelligence and charm.
Later that month, on the 11th January 1921, the column was preparing for sleep in their assigned shack when its commander came in with a surprise. “Boys, put on your boots,” O’Donnell announced. “A troop train is on its way to Burtonport!”
It was just one of the many quirks of the war that, after the wasted efforts on seeking an ambush, opportunity had fallen into their laps. As McCann noted:
In the other attempted operations where we lay an ambush, we had taken considerable pains in planning the layout of the scene of the operation but, in the case of the train ambush at Meenbanad, we had no time to prepare plans.
Arriving in Dungloe, the column were met by Sweeney’s men – once again, this was to be a joint operation. They hurried together, stopping at a spot about 150 yards from Meenaband Railway Station. The usual method of train-attacks was to lift the rails beforehand but, lacking the time, they instead loaded large stones on to the tracks and then lined up on either side. The Donegal men had shotguns, while the Derry column members carried the more prestigious rifles and hand-grenades, a sign of the elevated status such units had in the IRA, as compensation for the hardships and risks undertaken.
The Column Fights
The train rumbled into sight and range before too long and the ambushers opened fire, the ones with bombs endeavouring to lob them through carriage-windows. Soldiers on board returned shots, forcing the assailants back, and the train broke through the obstacles in its path.
The sole loss to the column, besides spent ammunition, was Willie Cullen, who became separated his comrades in the retreat and was picked by a British patrol. He was arrested but saved his rifle by hiding it in time, the weapon being gratefully recovered afterwards – rifles were a valuable commodity, after all.
Despite this lacklustre result, the column pulled off a second ambush of a train soon after. The men had moved from Crovagh, across the mountain to Loughkeel, where they stayed with a family. Without such hospitality, the war would have ground to a halt long ago. Hearing of the troop-train to West Donegal, O’Donnell brought his men to Crolly Railway Station, and arranged them on the hills overlooking it. A scout was sent out to the station to ascertain if there were civilians on board the incoming train.
When the agreed signal for a negative was received, the operation could go ahead:
As soon as the train arrived within effective distance for rifle fire from our positions, we opened a rapid fire on the train. This fire was maintained until the train had passed through the hill from which our men were firing.
The column moved base again, this time up the mountains to reduce the chances of discovery. After two ambushes in quick succession, the pace slowed to a crawl again. Attempts to waylay British patrols on the road came to nothing when the targets failed to appear. Two months passed and the column made a move on Falcarragh RIC Barracks in March 1921.
In preparation, a gun-cotton charge of explosives was created and attached to a wooden frame. Under O’Donnell’s direction, the column waited until dark and then surrounded the stronghold. Two men were sent ahead across the wall, into the yard, with the explosives passed over to them. The frame was placed against the gable and lit, the resulting detonation causing a lot of noise but little damage.
The Volunteers proceeded anyway with their assault as they opened fire on the still-intact building, while the defenders returned the shots and sent up Verey lights to call for reinforcements:
The exchange of fire lasted for about 30 minutes and then we withdrew from the attack, as rifle fire was an ineffective means of forcing the surrender of the barrack garrison.”
From there, the column moved to a number of different sites before ending up at their old digs in Crovegh. With three operations under their collective belt, the men could congratulate themselves on a respectable run and O’Donnell on a promotion to O/C of the Second Donegal Brigade, giving him authority over the north-west quarter of the county as well as Derry. Perhaps it was to assert himself over his latter responsibility, or because he was itching for a change, that O’Donnell left for Derry at the end of March 1921, taking McCann with him as his right-hand man.
A Bloody Night
Getting to the city was delayed by the same problems as when they left: the damage done to the routes by the guerrilla campaign, from collapsed bridges and trenched roads, meant that O’Donnell and McCann had to go by foot until the final stretch, where they were able to obtain a pair of bicycles.
O’Donnell wasted no time once in the city: the following night, on the Friday of the 1st April, he met the men of the Derry IRA, again in the Shamrock Hall. Guns and grenades were allocated to the assembled Volunteers, the strategy being to being to spring simultaneous assaults in different parts of the city. With orders to shoot any RIC personnel on sight, McCann set forth, accompanied by a second Derry native:
We had walked up to the top of Great James Street where I noticed the RIC man for whom I was looking coming walking meeting me, along with a civilian. I waited for him at Creggan Street where I shot him with my .45 revolver. He was Sergeant Higgins.
The assassin was described by the Derry Journal as “a very respectably dressed young man, wearing a raincoat and cap” who fled the scene. Aid was called to the stricken Higgins as he lay in a pool of blood, his brain visible through the hole in his head. Though the policeman was carried to hospital, he died three hours later without regaining consciousness.
At the same time as Higgins’ mortal wounding, bombs were hurled at the army post by the City Electrical Station, wounding three soldiers on duty, with two sufficiently injured to be removed for medical care, to be joined by Patrick Lafferty. The 34-year-old shipyard worker had been shot in the left knee in Asylum Road, though why he was targeted is unclear.
Almost immediately after these triple strikes, more gunshots and explosives were heard coming from Leckey Road, where the police barracks came under attack in an exchange of bullets between the garrison and assailants that lasted for three quarters of an hour, in contrast to the previously swift hit-and-run incidents. Constable Michael Kenny was critically injured by a bullet passing through the window on the barracks’ first landing, while a bomb fragment wounded Constable McLaughlin.
Throughout the night, other shots were fired in different parts of the city. Two more casualties, both inadvertent, were reported: an army private, wounded in the wrist while reaching for his rifle, with another private, J. Wright, fatally shot from behind by a panicky colleague.
Recovering from their surprise, soldiers and policemen soon flooded the streets, holding up passers-by to search for incriminating arms. Determined not to repeat Friday’s debacle, the military laid out barbed wire coils across Shipquay and Castle Streets, while soldiers patrolled the streets, reinforced by a pair of armoured cars. Though gunfire and explosives were heard throughout that Saturday night, the carnage of the evening before was not repeated, save in Leckey Road again, which suffered two fires at different times, one in a painters’ shop and then the other in a marine store.
Property damage aside, the losses of Friday night were two dead and seven wounded, two of the latter tally being civilians. By Monday, the Derry Journal was able to report that “the city was peaceable last night.”
After shooting Higgins, McCann had rejoined O’Donnell in the Christian Brothers School where the latter was hiding. Others arrived to report to O’Donnell on the success of the multi-pronged operation, and to warn about the increased British presence outside. Despite the added danger, O’Donnell and McCann were able to slip out of Derry, back to their column in Donegal.
O’Donnell was to return to a considerable amount of hot water. He had struck a bloody riposte against the enemy, and no one would be more enraged than his own side.
Gearóid O’Sullivan, as Adjutant-General of the IRA GHQ in Dublin, was to have his hands full in dealing with the flow of accusations coming out of Donegal and Derry. “I have your report re suppression of Commandant O’Donnell,” he wrote to Frank Carney on the 24th May 1921. “I regret very much that I have been sorely disappointed in the turn which things took in that area since you took over command. However, all these matters will be investigated at a later date.”
Carney had been promoted to O/C of the First Northern Division, giving him overall control of the Donegal-Derry units, but this good fortune was followed by bad when he was arrested. “I am sorry for your ill luck – getting into the hands of the enemy,” O’Sullivan added.
In light of this reversal, Carney’s post would be filled by Joe Sweeny, who was already O/C of the First Brigade in north-west Donegal. To Sweeney, O’Sullivan wrote:
I have received an extensive amount of correspondence on the position in the 1st Northern Division, resulting in disagreements between the late O/C [Carney], Commandant of Derry City and the Commandant of the 2nd Brigade [O’Donnell].
Sweeney was informed that he was to replace Carney, with O’Donnell remaining in charge of the Second Brigade, including authority over the Derry battalion. Meanwhile, GHQ would be sending up an officer to Derry to untangle the situation as best he could.
O’Donnell had already dispatched a letter of his own on the 15th May to present his side of the story. The source of the friction between him and Carney was another dispute, this one in Derry, where the women of Cumann na mBan and Patrick Shiels, the Derry O/C, were at loggerheads. Hoping to “clean the air”, as he put it, O’Donnell approached both sides for a hearing.
Although initially bias towards Shiels, perhaps as one male IRA commander to another, his sympathy turned in favour of the women. Cumann na mBan had a safe-house in Derry for medical treatment, yet when one of O’Donnell’s men was wounded in the hand, none of the other Volunteers would take the victim there, so deep was the divide. Their own attempts at first aid were so inept as to be akin to torture. Surely cooperation between the men of the Derry IRA and the women of Cumann na mBan could only be in everyone’s best interest, and O’Donnell hoped he could bring about a fresh start.
To the contrary, Shiels complained to Carney, then at liberty, about what he saw as O’Donnell’s meddling. When O’Donnell wrote to Carney with a request for guidelines on how Cumann na mBan should be treated, he received no answer, only a curt summons to Derry. Ill with a chill – which he attributed to crossing a river at night for an ambush – O’Donnell delayed until he could drag himself out of bed to make the journey.
While en route to Derry:
I attempted it but ran into a party of military, was spotted by a peeler, and refused to halt and broke off through the fields with a party of military in pursuit. My companion was captured. I was shot through the right shoulder and left hand and I had my right arm broken but managed to escape.
Finding himself suspended from command on Carney’s orders, bereft of explanation, O’Donnell could only plead to Dublin for a fair hearing: “It certainly will mean much to the Volunteer organisation in the county if GHQ will investigate facts and decide which of us is in the wrong.”
Doing an Act
O’Donnell was to receive this investigation; unfortunately, it only made things worse for him. When Liam Archer arrived in Derry on behalf of the Dublin leadership, he arranged to meet Sweeney and O’Donnell at the village of Churchill, Co. Donegal. Sweeney was already present when Archer came at 5 pm, while O’Donnell did not appear until an hour later, his excuse being a detour he had had to make to avoid a RIC patrol. Not that Archer believed this, as there had been no such sign of enemy presence in the area, so one source told him.
As Archer had to be back in Derry by 8 pm, he did not have a lot of time to ask questions, much to his annoyance. O’Donnell pleaded ignorance about the present controversy, again pointing to his efforts at mediation between Cumann na mBan and the Derry Volunteers as its probable cause. Again, Archer was not buying it. “There is no evidence that this has anything to do with the recent trouble,” he wrote in his report to GHQ, on the 3rd June:
On the other hand the grounds for dissatisfaction existing among the other officers I met are very definite. It is felt that this man was appointed to his present position by HQ owing to a complete misapprehension. As I cannot know whether HQ is conversant with this man’s story, it will be necessary for me to recount it as recd., from Comdt Sweeney and the O.C. Derry.
While working in Derry for the ITGWU, O’Donnell had apparently tried to form his own Irish Citizen Army (ICA), to the point of poaching IRA members. This only went so far before O’Donnell decided to throw his lot in with the IRA instead.
As the ITGWU and the IRA were not always on amiable terms, this was a serious charge. In his commentary on Archer’s findings, O’Sullivan recalled the past rivalry in Derry, and that “if O’Donnell was the man who was mixed up in this trouble I can understand how the difficulty has arisen.”
Interestingly, there is another account of O’Donnell attempting the same, except in a different Northern county, which ended in much the same way as in Derry:
A small section of the Citizen Army was in existence in Monaghan town in 1920 for some time. Peadar O’Donnell was in Monaghan in 1919 in connection with Labour trouble, and I think it was Peadar who organised the Citizen Army then. This section of the Citizen Army came over to the Volunteers in a body one night and were accepted by us.
Fittingly for a man who would become known for his socialist writings and advocacy, O’Donnell had been a class warrior long before fighting for Ireland, which he attributed to the example of an uncle in the ‘Wobblies’ (Industrial Workers of the World) while overseas in the United States. Despite his later commitment to the example of James Connolly, O’Donnell was not impressed on both occasions of seeing the great man in Dublin, where O’Donnell was training to be a teacher.
Each time, Connolly had been in the centre of trouble; the first, being jeered at with other ICA men on North George Street by some women, the second when speaking in Phoenix Park in favour of suffragettes when a group of women – again – pelted him with rotten fruit. Undeterred by this sort of challenge, O’Donnell would drop his teaching post – which he disliked anyway – and apply for work at Liberty Hall. His role as a full-time union organiser took him to counties like Derry and Monahan, giving credence to the stories about his ICA activism.
“Early in 1919, I left my job as a trade union organiser,” O’Donnell later wrote. “I became fully committed to the Volunteers.”
It was in Monaghan that O’Donnell proved this dedication in the attack on Ballytrain RIC Barracks in February 1920. He contributed a case of revolvers from Derry – which had perhaps been stored in McCann’s shop – as well as his own prowess, being part of the team that dug beneath a gable for a mine to be inserted, forcing the police garrison to surrender before detonation. After this baptism of fire, O’Donnell turned his attention back to Donegal.
Already he had had a career with a lot of twists and turns, as befitting his nature as the ‘rover type’. Little wonder, then, that by the time Michael O’Donoghue met him in mid-1922, “Peadar…was accounted ‘Red’ in Ulster” and not always taken entirely seriously:
His assertion that he always said his night prayers, or rather, endeavoured to direct his mind towards God and heaven each night, met with some incredulity. Peadar was a jocular dissembler and it was never easy to detect when he was ‘doing an act’.
It was not all fun and games. According to some, O’Donnell’s promotion to O/C of the Second Battalion was owed to him ‘doing an act’, an allegation that Archer took the time to detail at length in his scathing report.
A Jocular Dissembler?
O’Donnell had suggested to Sweeney, sometime in late 1920 – so the story went – that he could obtain munitions in Dublin through his ICA links. Sweeney provided an address in the city to contact GHQ, which O’Donnell used to attend a high-level IRA meeting and pass himself off as the official delegate from Donegal. This was enough to get himself promoted to command of the Second Brigade, something not intended by Sweeney.
If true, and Archer seemed to believe it was, it was understandable that the rest of the Donegal-Derry officers would feel:
…that an injustice has been done, by that appointment to this position, of a man who is only some six months a member of the IRA; who was an organiser for an organisation regarded as being unfriendly to the IRA; who possesses little volunteer experience, and whose ability has not yet been proven.
Archer listed other complaints: dispatches intended for the First Brigade that passed through the Second’s area would arrive opened, something which O’Donnell professed himself unable to explain. Even if that was not O’Donnell’s fault, his recent work in Derry in April 1921 undoubtedly caused resentment as he had apparently not consulted Shiels beforehand.
In addition, Volunteers under O’Donnell’s authority had robbed a couple of banks in response to Carney’s instructions to raise funds by ‘collection or otherwise.’ The men who committed these thefts had placed a wide interpretation on the words ‘or otherwise’. O’Donnell defended the robberies by saying that he had understood the orders in the same way.
Even O’Donnell’s wounding on active service was held against him in Archer’s narration:
The fact that the O/C Bde was shot, running away from an enemy patrol of six private soldiers, without any attempt at a fight on the part of him or his two companions, has seriously damaged his reputation as a commander.
As if calling witnesses for the prosecution, Archer quoted the opinions of others involved. The Derry officers regarded O’Donnell as “untrustworthy and incompetent, and matters have now reached a point where, if he remains in command, the O/C Derry will probably refuse to serve under him any longer and request transfer to another area.” Sweeney was only a little more lenient in his assessment that O’Donnell was “well-meaning but is impractical.”
In all this, O’Donnell had only himself to blame, according to Archer:
Owing to the short space of time I had with O/C No 2, and to the attitude of ignorance he adopted with regard to the cause of the trouble, I have heard practically nothing in his defence. He had held no Brigade council since he entered his duties, and it is probable that a lot of the existing trouble is due to a lack of contact between the O/C and his officers.
Sweeney had suggested that the Derry battalion be treated as a separate unit for the time being, though Archer was to advise against that in his communique. Instead, O’Donnell should be replaced by Shiels, who Archer considered “a much superior man” in terms of ability and personality. Hierarchy in general should be tightened, with the confusing tendency for one man to do the work of several posts to be stopped.
As to whether these reforms would be implemented, Archer was cautious, showing more than a hint of the big city man looking down on bumpkins: “In making the above recommendations, I would draw to your notice that I have little experience of country officers and I may be expecting more than is the rule.”
One detail Archer forgot to mention, or thought it unimportant, was that Sweeney and O’Donnell were second cousins. Judging by the former’s remarks about the latter, nepotism did not appear to be one vice practised by the Donegal IRA. The kinsmen were close enough to be interviewed together by Ernie O’Malley in 1949 but, despite such familiarity, a certain contempt laced their words about each other.
That the two men chose opposing sides in the Civil War did not help. O’Donnell had even been a prisoner of his cousin during this turbulent period, detained in Finner Camp which came under Sweeney’s authority in Donegal. A captive O’Donnell had been terrified of Tom Glennon, a hard-edged warden in the camp, comparing Glennon’s brutish ways with Sweeney “whose nature, while it was thin in feeling was clean in its hardness,” a backhanded compliment if there was ever one.
For Sweeney’s part, he blamed O’Donnell for the failure to take Glenties RIC Barracks on two separate occasions. The first, in April 1921, almost ended in disaster, as Sweeney recounted to O’Malley:
Peadar O’Donnell had got hold of an old cannon. He had arranged that a blacksmith…make cannon balls for this. The cannon was brought into position with a donkey and cart. It was to blow in the front door of the barracks, but when fired it blew itself to pieces and blew the walls backwards. Luckily no one was killed or injured.
The second attempt, in May, failed on account of O’Donnell’s warning his friends in Glenties village beforehand, with the leakage making its way to police ears.
And yet, according to McCann, O’Donnell was not in Donegal at the time of the April attack, having temporarily left for Dublin. Sweeney had been in charge and it was his idea to mount a Colt machine-gun on a tripod for added firepower. When Sweeney gave the order to attack, the machine-gun failed to work, and the remaining rifle-fire from the IRA was not enough to subdue the barracks.
Two similar stories, with one major difference in regards to responsibility.
Given the contradictory versions in regards to O’Donnell’s conduct, it was unsurprising that, after reading Archer’s summary of his time in Donegal, the IRA Director of Organisation, Eamonn Price, would admit bewilderment on what to think of it all:
I do not find it very easy to make up my mind from the report as to what would be the best thing to do. The whole difficulty is that O’Donnell’s appointment appears to have been a mistake. That is true, whether the statements regarding his record are correct or not. He does not appear to possess the qualities necessary for dealing with a Brigade command.
I am inclined to discount some of the things that are said against the O/C of the 2nd Brigade. The Officer from Headquarters [Archer] appears to have been prejudiced against him from the beginning owing to his unpunctuality and possibly owing to having heard the other side of the story.
As for the most serious allegation, that O’Donnell had essentially conned his way into command, Price was inconclusive: “The statement…as to how O’Donnell got in touch in Dublin I am not in a position to appraise.”
Price decided to wait for a fuller picture before rendering final judgement. For now, a compromise: O’Donnell was to continue as O/C of the Second Brigade, albeit over a diminished area, as the Derry battalion was to be a standalone unit as proposed. Both O’Donnell and Shiels were to report separately to Sweeney as Divisional Commander, which would at least keep them out of each other’s way.
“This is to be only a temporary arrangement pending further developments,” Price wrote in correspondence with his Chief of Staff, Richard Mulcahy, on the 21st June 1921.
Nonetheless, that was how the situation stood when, less than a month later, the Truce on the 11th July 1921 permitted a breathing space in the war. O’Donnell remained in charge and in Donegal, during which time he attended the officers’ training camp where he made the acquaintance of the Dublin envoy sent to tutor them. It was the start of a lifelong friendship between Todd Andrews and O’Donnell, despite the age gap of over eight years, when the latter “with his great kindness and comprehension took me in hand over any difficulties I encountered,” allaying his nerves and enabling him to finish the course as intended.
After which, the pair toured the countryside in a car, allowing Andrews to catch a glimpse of rural life, in the cultivated fields between stone walls and the homes of friends that O’Donnell dropped in on:
We were invited into the tiny kitchens for the ritual cup of tea with home-made bread. The people were obviously very poor but it was a different kind of poverty from what I was so familiar with in Dublin. However small and sparsely furnished the kitchens, which also served as living rooms, they were clean and tidy.
Compared to the slums of his home city and the hopelessness they bred, “what struck me most forcefully was the atmosphere of independent self-reliance,” though Andrews did not doubt that the means of these country people were also very scant.
It was an insight into a part of the country in whose name Andrews had been fighting, but which, in retrospection, he knew little about. O’Donnell endeavoured to fill in these mental gaps while proposing some solutions of his own, peppering his talk with phrases like ‘uprising of the masses’, ‘the gathering together of the workers’ and ‘the expropriation of the landlords’, the novelty of which left Andrews bewildered – and intrigued. Here was a way of looking at the national question he had never considered before.
What I heard from Peadar depicted in my mind at least an alternative future for Ireland which someone might want to create. While it lasted and while Peadar’s spell was on me, I was fascinated by these ideas.
‘While it lasted’ – this enthusiasm remained only until the two men parted company at Letterkenny Station, and Andrews took the train back south. Gone was the class warrior O’Donnell had tried to mould, and his pupil reverted to being, first and foremost, a soldier for Ireland. O’Donnell always made an impression, even if, however sublime the theory, leaving an impact was more complicated.
 Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979), pp. 196-8
 O’Donoghue, Michael (BMH / WS 1741, Part 2), p. 95
 Ibid, p. 108
 MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 24
 McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974, pp. 31, 41
 Ibid, p. 31
 McCann, Seamus (BMH / WS 763), pp. 10-1
 Ibid, p. 28
 McCann, pp. 6-8
 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. 23-4
 McCann, pp. 11-2
 Ibid, pp. 12-3
 Breslin, Patrick (BMH / WS 1448), pp. 19-20
 O’Malley, p. 25
 McCann, pp. 13-4
 Andrews, p. 199
 McCann, pp. 14-8
 Ibid, pp. 18-9
 Derry Journal, 04/04/1921
 McCann, p. 19
 UCD Archives, Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 324
 Ibid, p. 328
 Ibid, pp. 329-33
 Ibid, pp. 346-7
 Ibid, p. 344
 Donnelly, Thomas (BMH / WS 519), p. 3
 MacEoin, p. 24
 Ibid, p. 22
 Ibid, p 23
 MSP34REF60300, pp. 16, 33
 O’Donoghue, p. 95
 Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, pp. 348-51
 O’Malley, p. 22
 O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013), p. 104
 O’Malley, p. 30
 McCann, pp. 21-2
 Mulcahy Papers, P7/A/18, p. 344
 Ibid, p. 345
 Ibid, p. 344
 Ibid, p. 322
 Andrews, pp. 198-200
Andrews, C.S. Dublin Made Me (Cork: Mercier Press, 1979)
MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980)
McInerney, Michael. Peadar O’Donnell: Irish Social Rebel (Dublin: The O’Brien Press, 1974)
O’Donnell, Peadar. The Gates Flew Open (Cork: Mercier Press, 2013)
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)
Bureau of Military Statements
Breslin, Patrick, WS 1448
Donnelly, Thomas, WS 519
McCann, Seamus, WS 763
O’Donoghue, Michael, WS 1741
Military Service Pensions Collection
O’Donnell, Peadar, MSP34REF60300