The struggle had been a hard one but at last the three men, Colm Ó Lochlainn, Denis Daly and Sam Windrim, could claim a victory – something otherwise in short supply – when they reached the mountain pass of Bealach Óisín. This was despite the plaintive protests of their car, with its hissing, spluttering engine, which had forced the trio to get out and push the floundering vehicle over the last few yards. For a long while afterwards, all they could do was slump over the bonnet, utterly exhausted, but on the brink of escape from Co. Kerry.
As it was now dark, the three men slept as best they could, huddled together in the rear seat. Though they did not know it yet, Ó Lochlainn and Daly were all that remained of a five-strong team who had left Dublin the day before, on Good Friday 1916, as part of the opening moves in a national upheaval set to happen the following week at Easter.
Not that Ó Lochlainn knew much about it. Despite his place on the Irish Volunteers Executive, and his rank as captain on the staff of Joseph Plunkett, their Director of Intelligence, he had only been told the day before, Holy Thursday, when Plunkett briefed Ó Lochlainn about an operation he was to undertake in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry, involving a wireless station near there to be dismantled and removed elsewhere.
Even then, Ó Lochlainn was ignorant as to the whys, until another high-ranking figure in the Irish Volunteers, J.J. ‘Ginger’ O’Connell, stopped by later that Thursday at Ó Lochlainn’s house in Dublin, seeking to have some gaps in his own knowledge filled:
I told Ginger where I was going and he informed me he was off the following morning to take charge of the Volunteers of the Kilkenny and Carlow districts. He told me that a rising had been planned to start on Easter Sunday…but at that time he knew very little about what was going to take place, and wanted to know if I knew anything to confirm the rumours in circulation.
Ó Lochlainn did not. Daly knew more, albeit only a little, from attending a series of strategy meetings with Seán Mac Diarmada, Michael Collins, Con Keating and Dan Sheehan:
As I understood it at the time, the main purpose of our mission was to enable wireless contact to be made with a German arms ship (I don’t think name of vessel was mentioned), which was expected at Fenlit on Easter Sunday.
The second objective was apparently to misdirect any Royal Navy warships off the South-West coast, via the wireless messages from the pilfered equipment, away from Tralee Bay where the German vessel in question would land. However “I cannot, from personal knowledge, confirm or deny, that there was such an intention,” Daly later wrote. “It is possible, but I do not recollect any discussion on the matter.”
Years might pass but much about the event that had changed Ireland irrevocably would remain obscured in ignorance, even to its participants.
Daly guessed that if anyone in the team had the dummy codes to send, it would have been Keating, a Kerryman who was to be their wireless operator. He and Daly were selected for the group, along with Ó Lochlainn and Sheehan, who had previously lived in London, where he helped procure rifles to be smuggled over to Ireland. Another conspirator, Joseph O’Rourke, was intended to go as the fifth man but Mac Diarmada decided at the last minute to keep him in Dublin to help coordinate the upcoming revolt and sent Charles Monahan, a Belfast native, in his place.
Who was in charge is uncertain, as both Ó Lochlainn and Daly claimed command in their respective accounts. The two men met for the first time on the Friday morning at the Ballast Office, Westmoreland Street, where they were introduced to each other by Michael Collins, who then handed them their train tickets for the journey.
Ó Lochlainn had come on a bicycle, which he left behind with Collins. When Ó Lochlainn later asked for its return, Collins told him that his bicycle had ended up in a barricade on Abbey Street during Easter Week.
Entering the Kingdom
The team headed down to Killarney by train, with Ó Lochlainn and Daly in one carriage, and Keating, Sheehan and Monahan on another, in order to throw off suspicion. Code words for their arrival had been prepared in advance – “Are you John?” “Yes, William sent me” – but they seemed so obvious that it was agreed not to bother with them.
As it turned out, there were only two cars waiting at Killarney Station – a Maxwell and a Briscoe – and both with Limerick plates, which rendered any code words unnecessary. Keating got into one, while the other four men, for appearance’s sake, walked into town until reaching the College, at which point the cars picked them up.
That is, at least, according to Ó Lochlainn’s version. In Daly’s, the group first had lunch in a pub in Killarney, before going to a road junction outside town at the appointed time:
The cars were there. Both cars were the property of Tommy McInerney of Limerick. He drove himself and the other was driven by a driver of whose name I do not remember. We had never met either man before.
The second wheelman, Sam Windrim, had been drafted in at the last minute when domestic circumstances made it impossible for the intended driver, John Quilty, to participate. Both McInerney and Quilty were Limerick Volunteers but Windrim was a newcomer and so it was deemed necessary for the other two to first take him to the privacy of an upstairs office in Limerick and swear him to secrecy.
Again, Ó Lochlainn and Daly stayed together in the Maxwell, the remaining three in the Briscoe. The former group were driven ahead by Windrim, with the others at their tail, staying close enough to see each other’s lights. “It was never intended that we should separate,” remembered Daly.
Ó Lochlainn watched the hedgerows and stone walls of the Kerry landscape pass by, while the sky deepened into twilight and then night. He also kept a close eye on the Briscoe to the rear, though not closely enough, because, after three miles out of Killorglin town, he realised that he could no longer see the headlights. The other car was gone.
They doubled back to search, straining their eyes through the gloom, to no avail. They stopped and waited, hoping that it was just a case of engine trouble or a flat tyre, and that their comrades would reappear at any moment but, as an hour passed, that no longer seemed feasible. Deciding that their mission took precedence, Ó Lochlainn, Daly and Windrim pressed on to Cahersiveen, only to be stopped on the road by a whistle-blast from ahead.
Two figures stepped into the headlights, showing themselves to be a sergeant and a constable in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC). Ó Lochlainn instinctively reached for the revolver he had borrowed from Plunkett.
Escape from Kerry
“Will we shoot?” asked Daly.
“No,” Ó Lochlainn replied. “I let someone else start the war. Talk will do for these fellows.”
Ó Lochlainn’s instincts proved correct. The three passengers explained that they were medical students to the RIC pair, who proceeded to give the car the briefest of searches. When they found a box and a bag, the explanation that the first held boots and the other clothes was enough to dissuade the policemen from peering inside.
In truth, the trio were equally ignorant of the contents, and it was only after the RIC men waved them through that they had a look for themselves. What they found was enough to startle Ó Lochlainn:
Oh! sergeant; that box contained two jemmies, a keyhole saw and a few other trinkets. The bag held an assorted collection of electrical appliances, two hatches and a heavy hammer.
Had the police been more thorough, the ‘medical students’ would have had a hard time explaining why their profession required these particular items. As it were:
Over the edge went the lot, owners having no further use for same. The job was off – a few words let drop by the sergeant had let out that a platoon of soldiers had come…and that all police units were on patrol.
Ó Lochlainn and Daly agreed that the only thing to do was leave Kerry, since neither of them had the necessary technical knowledge to dismantle and rearrange the wireless set as intended. That responsibility would have lain with Keating and possibly Sheehan, and they were MIA with Monahan. Given the agitated state of the authorities, it was surmised that the second car had been stopped back in Killorglin and its occupants arrested.
The only route out of the Kingdom ran through the narrow pass at Bealach Óisín, and to there they went, or at least tried to, for both the hilly terrain and their car fought them every inch of the way. For an hour they struggled uphill in the dark, much to the perturbation of their vehicle:
She was slipping and spitting and racing and faltering and stumbling and once she got one hind wheel into a gull and nearly turned over, and then we pushed and heaved and slipped and swore and called on the Lord and groaned and grunted until we arrived at last where the story begins.
But, for them, it was the end. The car almost made it to Killarny, before breaking down for good. Ó Lochlainn and Daly left Windrim with his defeated Maxwell, and walked to the train station in time to catch the morning ride back to Dublin. While changing carriages at Mallow, Co. Cork, they received word that there had been arrests made in Kerry.
But not of Keating, Sheehan or Monahan. Ó Lochlainn only learnt of their fate a month later when he chanced upon a newspaper article. It had been reported earlier, on the Easter Monday of the 24th April but, given the brief attention the story received in the Irish Times, a reader could be forgiven for overlooking it:
THREE MEN DROWNED IN KERRY – MOTOR CAR JUMPS INTO A RIVER
Three men, whose names are unknown, were drowned in the River Laune, near Killorglin, Thursday night. They were motoring towards Tralee and, taking the wrong turn, the car went over the quay wall, and the three men were drowned. The chauffeur escaped. Two of the bodies were recovered last evening.
That the newspaper incorrectly dated the incident to Thursday and not the Friday shows how little was known at the time. John Quilty, in whose car the drowned men had been, heard that McInerney, the driver and sole survivor, had lost his way and asked for directions from a young girl on the roadside.
“First turn on your right,” she said, the direction leading an oblivious McInerney, driving almost blindly in the dark, down a cul-de-sac to Ballykissane Pier, over which they plunged.
Sheehan and Monahan went down with the Briscoe, but, as McInerney later told Quilty, he and Keating managed to pull free and swam together in the cold waters, shouting for help until a light appeared to guide them to shore.
Keating never made it, suddenly disappearing beneath the surface with a cry of “Jesus, Mary and Joseph”. McInerney pressed on until he reached dry land, where he was assisted by Patrick Begley, a schoolteacher who, as luck would finally have it, possessed enough Fenian feeling to hide McInerney’s gun before the RIC could find it on him.
Supplied with a policeman’s uniform in place of his wet clothes, McInerney fenced with the questions posed to him, insisting to the RIC that he knew nothing about the other men and had only been hired to drive them to Cahersiveen. When Windrim – after seeing Ó Lochlainn and Daly off out of Kerry – and Quilty, whose number plate was on the salvaged Briscoe, were picked up in turn by the authorities, they too kept schtum, insisting on only the most innocent of motives for all involved.
Coming to a Halt
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the newspapers, a second report concerning a most unusual occurrence in Kerry was published by the Press Bureau on that same day of Easter Monday:
The Secretary of the Admiralty announces – During the period between p.m. April 20 and p.m. April 21 an attempt to land arms and ammunition in Ireland was made by a vessel under the guise of a neutral merchant ship, but in reality a German auxiliary…The auxiliary sank and a number of prisoners was made.
It was but one mishap that slowly but surely unravelled the plans for the Rising.
Captain Jeremiah O’Connell had assembled ten Kerrymen from his Cahersiveen Company on Easter Sunday, the most he could find on short notice. As it was he who had dispatched Keating to Dublin to answer a request for a man trained as a wireless operator, he was more in the loop than most.
He had also been told to find a pilot for the boat that was to escort their German visitors to shore when they arrived, at which point O’Connell would lead his squad to Tralee by bicycle and capture the barracks, railway station and post office. The Cahersiveen Volunteers were on their way to do just that when, upon reaching Killorglin, they learnt of the tragedy at Ballykissane. The earthly remains of their fellow Kerryman, Keating, was already lying in the courthouse.
Continuing on to Tralee, they next discovered that things had gone from bad to worse: not only had the German vessel been captured but fresh orders from Eoin MacNeill, their Chief of Staff, had come through to call off the whole venture, with the would-be rebels ordered back to their homes. There was nothing left for O’Connell and his subordinates to do but just that.
As it happened, even if the five men had succeeded in obtaining the wireless radios, the mission of the German ship – the Aud – could still have only ended in defeat. Messages transmitted to New York were to have been received by sympathetic Irish-Americans and then forwarded to the German embassy to ensure that the Aud appeared off the Kerry coast at the assigned time and with knowledge of the signals to give and receive from the shore.
For Want of a Nail…
Such an intervention from a friendly power could tip the odds decisively in favour of the Rising. When Patrick McCartan, whose role was to help facilitate these trans-Atlantic communications, met one of his co-conspirators, Tom Clarke, in Dublin, he found that:
Tom was enthusiastic about the prospect. He said there were at least 5,000 Germans coming and he was all enthusiastic about how thorough the Germans were and that they would do things in a big way, so that I left him for the first train next morning as enthusiastic as himself.
As it turned out, the rebels had severely overestimated their ‘gallant allies in Europe’. No one seemed to have realised that the Aud, already on course for Ireland:
…had no wireless. They acted on the assumption that the Germans were so thorough and perfect in all their arrangements that there would have been a means of communicating with the Aud.
The result was that the ship arrived on the Thursday, the 20th April, three days earlier than the expected Sunday, with no one present to receive them with signals or pilot-boats. The crew waited in the waters of Tralee Bay for twenty hours before passing warships in the Royal Navy grew suspicious and intercepted the Aud as it tried to escape to the high seas.
Its cargo of 20,000 rifles fell short of the 5,000 soldiers Clarke had been anticipating but the loss was still sufficient enough for MacNeill – already skittish about their chances – to conclude that insurgency was no longer practical. With that decision came the cancellation orders that Jeremiah O’Connell and other Irish Volunteers all over the country received in time to stop them in their tracks on Easter Sunday.
Though the Rising would go ahead the next day regardless, it did so in a piecemeal manner, limited to the capital and a handful of other areas, and did not last the week.
Small wonder, then, that when Frank Henderson, one of the participants-to-be in Easter Week, was reading the evening papers about the mishaps in Kerry, he had the sinking feeling “that we were going to have a repetition of all the previous insurrections.”
Rarely had a wrong turn led to so many woes.
The Living and the Dead
There was a slightly eerie postscript to the episode. Alf Monahan had been in Galway during the Easter Rising, one of the few areas that did see action. When the rebels decided on the Saturday that further resistance was useless, Monahan accompanied Liam Mellows and Frank Hynes, the Galway commander and a company captain respectively, in going on the run, through the Galway wilderness and into Clare, where they were sheltered by the local Volunteers in a tiny, hillside cottage.
When provided with newspapers, the trio were able to catch up with events, from the heavy fighting in Dublin to the executions afterwards, including the drowning in Kerry. As only two names – Keating and Sheehan – were given, Alf Monahn did not know at first that the third victim was his brother, Charles.
They stayed in the cottage until Mellows left for America on the orders of the new revolutionary leadership, after which Hynes was taken to Tipperary. When Monahan’s turn came near Christmas, he believed that the car that drove him away to safety was the same vehicle in which his brother had drowned eight months ago, with even the same chauffeur at the wheel, Tommy McInerney.
In this, Alf was mistaken, for it was the Maxwell car he was in, while Charles had taken his last ride that fateful night in the Briscoe. All the same, it must have made for an uncomfortable journey.
It was just another morning for Constable Bernard Reilly as he waited out his shift at Ardfert Station, Co. Kerry, on the 21st April 1916, Good Friday, when a man came by to report a boat seen down by Banna Strand. Reilly passed this on to his superior, Sergeant Tom Hearne, who went to investigate with Constable Robert Larke.
All three were members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC), the police force tasked with upholding law and order throughout Ireland – British law and order, that is. It was a centuries-old state of affairs that some, unbeknown to Reilly and his colleagues, were planning to change and soon – within the next few days, in fact.
Hearne and Larkin returned to the station at 11 am with a horse and cart, on top of which was a boat. As well as the abandoned vessel, the two RIC men had found on the beach three Mauser pistols, some ammunition, two or three signalling lamps and several maps, including one of the locality. Talk about town was of three strangers seen walking inland from the direction of Banna Strand, presumably having come in off the boat in question.
Sergeant Hearne sent a report via the Ardfert post office to the RIC headquarters in Tralee and then took Larke and Reilly to search for the rumoured trio. After fruitlessly knocking on the doors of houses in the vicinity, Hearne, accompanied by Reilly, decided to give McKenna’s Fort a try. While the sergeant treated himself to a smoke outside, Reilly entered the Fort, if that was not too grand a name for the overgrown, long-abandoned rath.
As he did so:
…a man approached me from the shrubbery. He was a tall gentleman. He looked foreign to me and not generally the type one meets in a street. There was nothing unusual about his clothes. He wore a beard and had more or less an aristocratic appearance.
This regal-looking individual introduced himself as Richard Morton, a writer from England who was in Kerry researching for a book he was writing on St Brendan the Navigator, a local celebrity from antiquity. As he spoke, Morton fiddled with a sword-stick, drawing the blade in and out, while glancing over his shoulder as if looking for someone.
So that there would be no misunderstanding, Reilly advised the other man to refrain from unsheathing his weapon or else he would shoot with his own. Actually, the rifle Reilly carried was unloaded but there was no need for the twitchy visitor to know otherwise.
When Sergeant Hearne appeared, Morton repeated his story to him. Not wholly convinced by this, Hearne asked him if he could come with them to the station, to which the self-proclaimed Englishman agreed. He had probably guessed he had little in the way of choice on the matter.
The two policemen and their surprise acquaintance walked to the public road, about seventy-five yards from the fort, where they came across a boy called Martin Collins, who was driving a pony and trap. Commandeering a ride, if temporarily, Reilly put Morton on the trap and, sitting firmly beside him, rode off, with Hearne and Collins waiting behind.
Reilly took him to a farmhouse where lived Mary Gorman, who had first spotted the three mystery men leaving from Banna Strand while she milked the cows. After Gorman identified Morton as one of the trio, Reilly returned with him to where Hearne and Collins were waiting.
The RIC men gave the pony and trap back to the boy, who, his curiosity piqued, followed the small group of Hearne, Reilly and Morton as they walked the mile back to Ardfert Station. It was by then midday. Collins handed a slip of paper to Reilly, which their new friend had dropped. Written on it was part of a code – useless in itself, but something which would later serve as evidence in a trial that resulted in the sentence of death for ‘Richard Morton’ or, rather, Sir Roger Casement.
For Casement, it was a strangely anticlimactic end to an adventure that had promised so much at the start. “At last in Berlin! The journey done – the effort perhaps only begun!” he wrote in his diary in October 1914. “Shall I succeed? Will they see the great cause aright and understand all it may mean to them, no less to Ireland?”
The answer, initially, was ‘yes’; his new allies did indeed see the worth of the mission Casement brought before them. A succession of German officials listened sympathetically as he spoke of his dreams of enlisting their nation’s help in securing the freedom of his own, though their sanguinity could give even him pause. When Casement warned Baron Wilheim von Stumm that Britain had the means to prolong its current war with Germany for years, the Director of the Political Department at the Foreign Office laughed.
“What can she do to us?” von Stumm replied. “Her fleet is become a laughing stock.”
By April 1916, almost two years later, Casement was straining to escape his host country. “My last day in Berlin! Thank God!” Even a possible fate at the end of an English noose did nothing to deter him. “Oh! To see the misted hills of Kerry and the coast and to tread the fair strand of Tralee!”
He had already been informed, on the 30th March, about the planned uprising in Ireland. As the Germans initially declined to provide any weapons or men to help, Casement could foretell only disaster. “I said I could guarantee no revolution and that I sincerely hoped there would be none!”
The next day, he was wheezing in bed, struck down by a lung congestion, but no less committed to returning, if only to put a stop to this rebellion-in-the-works. That the Germans had at last consented to provide help, in the form of a steamer loaded with weapons for Tralee Bay, on Easter Monday, but only on condition of the Irish rebels being out in the field already on the Sunday, was enough to send Casement into a rage: “The utter callousness & indifference here – only seeking bloodshed in Ireland.”
The only thing left for him to do was board the submarine provided for him and put Baron von Stumm’s lofty dismissal of the Royal Navy to the test.
Casement was not looking forward to the journey – twelve days, he reckoned, inside a stinking, suffocating confinement – but it would be worth it once he reached his homeland. He had been assured they would make it in time but Casement nursed his doubts: “My first fear is that we shall never land – but be kept off the shore until the ‘rebellion’ breaks out.”
And that was the last line in his diary, though there was still much to happen. Too much, and also too little.
Accompanying Casement on his return home were Captain Robert Monteith and Sergeant Daniel Bailey. The former had come to Germany to assist Casement with setting up the ‘Irish Brigade’, made up of Irish POWs, while the latter was one of these said recruits, before the project was set aside as a failure.
The Germany Navy had at least rowed back on its original demands for an Irish rebellion to have broken out the day before the weapons shipment landed. Instead, a vessel was now set to arrive between Holy Thursday, the 20th April, and Easter Sunday, the 23rd, the window of four days being regarded by the German planners as sufficient to account for the vagaries of weather. As the insurrection was timed for the Sunday, according to the missives from the revolutionary leadership in Dublin, the haul of 20,000 rifles should arrive in time for the rebels to be thus equipped for when they set forth.
As he listened to these arrangements being laid out at the Admiralty in Berlin, Monteith was dismayed at what he considered to be a pitifully inadequate donation of weapons, and said as much. It was brutally clear, however, that that was all the Irish cause could expect from its ‘gallant allies’. At least a bedridden Casement was elated when Monteith brought the news to him – any development was better than none at this point.
Nonetheless, the three Irishmen found much to brood over as the U-boat took them over the northern tip of Britain and down the Irish west coast. They had been away for so long that they knew little about how things stood in their country. Nor could they be sure about the Aud – the steamer carrying the rifles – arriving in time, if at all, and whether the rebellion Casement dreaded would happen regardless.
When the U-boat passed the mouth of the Shannon, on the evening of the 20th April, the trio watched from the conning tower, peering into the starless night for the pilot boat that was due to guide them but its twin green lights – the prearranged signal – never materialised.
Other lights came and went but never the ones they so desperately sought. Neither did the Aud appear, though the Irishmen had spotted it earlier in the day. Finally, the submarine captain announced that they could wait no longer and set the course for full speed towards Tralee Bay. As the three Irishmen prepared to disembark, Monteith loaded his pistol, and then tried teaching Casement how to use his.
“It is quite possible we may either kill or be killed,” Monteith warned but Casement had never handled a gun before and, besides, he appeared too sick to be of any use in a fight. Monteith suggested some sleep but, what with all the worry, that was also unlikely to happen.
Instead, they gloomily discussed their odds. While they had evaded British patrol ships, Casement did not think the German steamer would be so lucky. Other than the loss of the much-needed weaponry, such a find, Casement feared, would almost certainly put the authorities on their guard.
Further talk was curtailed by a German officer telling them that it was time to go ashore. When Monteith saw the size of the boat that was to carry them, he had the presence of mind to request three lifebelts. Casement sat in the stern, Monteith the bow, and Bailey in between as the boat was lowered onto the lazily rolling waves. Its duty done, the submarine receded into the dark, leaving the three companions to face the unknown.
Hunting for Help
As the captain had refused them a motor, lest the sound betray the German presence – concern for the Irishmen was not so forthcoming – the tiny crew had to make do with rowing. Somehow they avoided drowning, though just about. A landlubber at heart, Monteith pushed his oar too deeply and went overboard, head first, before Bailey hauled him back.
When they were close enough to shore, Monteith jumped out, standing up to his waist in the water while Bailey unloaded, first their equipment and then Casement, who was practically an invalid by then. Monteith tried scuttling the boat but the wood was too hard for his knife, the only tool he had at hand, and so he abandoned the task.
But the wretched tub was not yet finished with me. As I was about to leave, a wave struck it, and drove it sideways on top of my right foot. This wrenched my ankle, adding a little to my general discomfort. I scrambled away, and went up to the beach.
All three men were stretched out on the sand, soaked to the skin, bereft of sleep and food save for the little they could keep down during the past few days of seasickness. Casement looked the worst, being barely conscious, and Monteith had to make him move about so as to restore some semblance of circulation to his limbs.
With dawn fast approaching, the trio knew they had to act. Given the perilous state of Casement’s health, it was decided to leave him in hiding while the other two walked into Tralee, their plan from there being to procure a motorcar for Dublin. So as to not stand out when reaching civilisation, they buried their Mauser pistols, ammunition belts, field glasses and the rest of the equipment, save their overcoats, in the beach.
Striking inland, they stumbled into some bogland, as if they were not damp enough already. Sunrise gave them some comfort, as well as a better view, and, coming to firmer land, they found a ruined old castle which they had been considering as the best place to leave Casement. Seeing it in the cold light of day, however, the group were forced to rethink that plan – Monteith did not think the castle large enough to hide a cat – and so it was agreed to keep going and find a better site.
As they passed a farmhouse on the road:
Looking over the wall, we saw a young girl, her hair tousled and untidy, blinking at the sun and leaning on a half door. She saw us, and stared in a manner that showed it was unusual for strangers to pass along that road so early in the morning.
Considering their bedraggled state, it was hardly surprising that they would attract attention, from Mary Gorman or anyone, at any time of the day. The trio were more careful when a cart rumbled their way on the road. Crossing the fence to the side, they hid among the bushes until the cart passed, its two passengers seemingly none the wiser.
Half an hour later, they had a second bit of good fortune when finding the remnants of an ancient hill-fort, thick with shrubbery. That seemed an opportune place to leave Casement, better than the previous choice in any case, and so the other two pressed on while their comrade recuperated as best he could.
Following the shore road, Monteith and Bailey were able to cover the eight miles to Tralee in good time. Carefully avoiding the RIC station at Ardfert – whose occupants would soon be paying a visit to Casement in McKenna’s Fort – they saw no one except a surly farmer, who did not bother to return their greeting, and then a sole policeman, who took one look at the pair before continuing on his way. The two men breathed a sigh of relief at this timely piece of official negligence.
It was 7 am on Good Friday morning when they reached Tralee. There were some people about but no shops open, save for a few newsagents. Both Monteith and Bailey were so ignorant of the area that they decided their only chance lay in finding someone who wore a tricolour or, failing that, a newsagent that sold the more radical papers in the hope that their sympathies were as republican as their stock.
They had no such luck until coming across a hairdresser’s saloon, with posters outside of The Irish Volunteer and The Worker’s Republic, exactly the sort of titles they were seeking. The saloon was not open but the neighbouring door was and so the pair took the chance of accepting the invite of a shave from the man standing there:
We entered and found ourselves in a news agent’s shop, which was lighted by the doorway only as the shutters were not yet off the windows. The proprietor, whose name was [George] Spicer, informed me that he worked both the news agent’s and hair dressing shops, and that his son would be down in a minute to shave me.
Having gone too far to back away now, Monteith asked Spicer for the name and address of whoever led the Irish Volunteers around there, adding that he and his companion were on important business concerning them. As proof of his urgency, he pointed to their wet clothes.
After thinking it over, Spicer called his son down and told him to go fetch Austin Stack, the commander in question. All Monteith and Bailey could do in the meantime was wait: “We were counting the minutes as we thought of poor Casement away out in the old fort, wet, cold and hungry, waiting for a car that never came.”
When Stack arrived, he was accompanied by his aide, Con Collins, who had met Monteith before and was able to vouch for him to his commandant. Monteith gave them the basic details of Casement’s plight, including his need to go to Dublin and get in touch with the leadership of the Irish Volunteers there. Stack promptly dispatched a man to find a motor car for that purpose.
When Monteith asked after the German ship with the arms, Stack replied that his orders were that the vessel in question was not due to reach Tralee Bay until Easter Sunday, in two days’ time:
He had no information of the ship being already in the bay. I urged that he send a pilot out at once and told him what the ship carried. I told him there was no artillery coming, neither officers nor artillery men. Stack made no comment beyond saying that as far as his orders went, the ship was not to come in until Sunday night.
In fact, there had been talk of a strange vessel sighted off Fenit Point on the previous day, Thursday, leading to a trusted Volunteer, William Mullins, being sent there to investigate. After talking to a few locals, Mullins returned to Tralee to report his belief that the rumours had been entirely spurious.
The Larger Project
And now these two outsiders had appeared out of nowhere to tell Stack that his orders from Dublin were wrong. That they were there at all put him in an awkward position, threatening as they did, with their mere presence and unsolicited updates, the plans for the Rising in Kerry.
For Stack, the event had been a long time in the making, ever since he was summoned to Dublin, sometime in late 1915 or early 1916, for an interview with Patrick Pearse, on the grounds of the latter’s school of St Enda’s. Accompanying Stack was Alf Cotton, a Belfast native who had been sent to Kerry by their mutual superiors to help Stack lay the groundwork for….something.
That something was revealed by Pearse to be a full-scale insurrection of the Irish Volunteers throughout the country, timed for the Easter Week of 1916. A series of parades would provide cover for the different units to muster, after which they would act on their respective instructions.
Those for the Tralee Company were more elaborate than most. Besides the usual targets – such as the RIC barracks, the post office and the train station – the Kerry Volunteers were to greet a ship carrying German arms at Fenit Pier and then help with the logistics of transporting the cargo, via commandeered trains, along the west of Ireland, where the Volunteer companies on the route would take their share.
Concerned about the difficulties the vessel in question would face, from the dangers of fog or storm, to running the blockade of British warships, Cotton suggested alternatives, such as landing the supplies in smaller amounts at different points, or even the use of Zeppelins to bypass the Royal Navy altogether, but Pearse insisted that the arrangements had already been set in motion.
Pearse also stressed the need for absolute secrecy. Information was to be limited to a select few, only when necessary, and never more than needed. Previous rebellions had floundered from a fatal leakage of intelligence, a negligence which Pearse was determined would not be repeated this time.
“Secrecy was to be preserved up to the very last minute,” as Cotton described. “Much depended on the element of surprise both for our local activities and for the larger project.”
Pearse reinforced these instructions on a visit to Tralee, three or four weeks before Easter Week. In particular, Stack was to keep his men on a tight leash, at least until Easter Sunday, the designated date, lest any premature deed tip their hand to the British authorities.
‘The Game is Up’
This was something Stack kept at the forefront of his mind during those hectic hours, when he struggled to fulfil the duties bestowed on him by Pearse, while juggling with the sudden demands thrust on him by Monteith and Beverley. As his widow put it:
Austin was blamed by some for not trying to organise a rescue of Sir Roger Casement and I know he felt very sore about it, but he always said his orders were definite that no shot should be fired before the start of general hostilities on Easter Sunday and he knew well that any fracas that might take place in Tralee would frustrate all the plans made for the Rising.
But first Stack made an attempt to retrieve Casement from where the newcomers said they left him. When the car Stack requested pulled up outside, he and Collins got in, along with Bailey, while Monteith stayed behind. As a guide, however, Bailey left something to be desired, ignorant as he was of the locality, with only the information that Casement was “somewhere on Banna Strand” to offer.
Which was better than nothing. Stack recruited Maurice Moriarty, a Tralee Volunteer, to put his profession as a chauffeur to use in driving him, Collins and Bailey to Banna Strand, taking care to avoid the police base at Ardfert. When they came across a horse and cart, managed by two RIC men from the opposite direction, Stack asked Bailey if the boat on top was his.
When Bailey replied that it was the same, Stack could only exclaim: “Oh, God, lads, the game is up.”
Worse, there were about twenty policemen posted about Banna Strand, obviously on the lookout. Finding Casement suddenly became the least of their concerns. “The game is up,” Stack repeated, according to Moriarty. “What are we going to do now?”
As a RIC officer, Sergeant Daniel Croly, came their way, it was quickly agreed inside the car that they would pose as innocent sightseers. It was then that one of their tyres burst, prompting the startled sergeant to accuse them of firing a gun at him. The police were clearly on edge, though how much the authorities knew was yet uncertain.
Bluffing and Brazening
When Croly had calmed down:
He then got curious and demanded an explanation of our presence on the Strand. I [Moriarty] told him my passengers were visitors on holiday, they wished to travel along the sea coast, and that I was under the impression it was possible to get to Ballyheigue by following the beach.
The sergeant did not seem wholly convinced by this but left them alone long enough for the four men to change their tyre and drive away to Lawlor’s Cross. Croly followed them there on a bicycle and continued his questioning, such as whether they had heard anything about a boat landing that morning.
When Stack replied that he did not, Croly continued: “Yes, we got the boat and we got our man, too.”
When the policeman next asked what he would do if put under arrest, Stack threatened to make a fight of it. After some more verbal toing-and-froing, Croly finally searched the car and, finding nothing of note, let them go. Even that was not the last the Volunteers saw of the sergeant, for when they drove on to Ballyheigue – to go anywhere else would have only incited more suspicion – and called into a pub:
After we were there some time I [Moriarty] saw Sergeant [Croly] going into the Post Office. I called Stack’s attention to this and Stack said, “Yes, I saw him. I suppose he is ‘phoning all over Ireland. We are done now.”
Stack’s gloom seemed justified when they travelled on to Causeway village, to be confronted by an RIC patrol on the alert for their car. Collins was searched when he got out and taken away to the barracks when a Webley revolver was found on him.
Stack made a tougher show of it, admitting that he had a loaded automatic, along with spare ammunition and some documents, but that, when asked if he had the paperwork for the gun: “No Irishman needs a certificate these days to carry firearms.”
When the sergeant in charge weakly admitted this was the case, Stack boldly went to the barracks, gun still in hand, and came out a few minutes later with Collins. Stack had brazened his way and that of his comrades out of trouble but it was clear now that the risks of keeping Bailey, a stranger to the area, around for any longer were too great. After they drove out of Causeway, they stopped at Ballymacaurin village to leave Bailey at the house of a Volunteer.
The remaining three returned to Tralee, their journey done, with Stack warning the others to deny anything if asked. As Moriarty left to park the car, he noticed an increased RIC presence on the streets. He had just finished dinner at home when another policeman came to ask about his passengers that day. Moriarty stuck to his script and insisted that the others had merely been tourists.
Stack and Collins were likewise questioned together at the former’s house by a constable, with Stack waxing indignant at how their trip that morning had been ruined by intrusive peelers. After sharing a light meal, Collins left to see a friend in town, while Stack went to the Rink, a hall rented by the Irish Volunteers for their activities.
Stack had previously called a meeting for there, ostensibly to organise a parade, set to be held on the Sunday, in two days’ time. In reality, the event was intended only as an excuse for the Volunteers to muster, just before the Rising was due to begin, a motive Stack had been keeping to himself. True to his instructions for absolute secrecy until the last possible moment, he continued the charade as he sat down to work out the details of the phoney parade with the other officers in attendance.
The session was almost concluded when Collins’ friend in town, Michael O’Flynn, came in to take Stack aside. O’Flynn told him that he had been with Collins when the RIC came to arrest the latter, and he was now passing on the other man’s request for Stack to see him in the station. Stack agreed to do so and returned to the meeting, when another piece of bad fortune arrived, courtesy of a Volunteer who had come from Ardfert on a bicycle:
I saw this scout immediately and the news that he had for me was to the effect that the Ardfert police had brought to the barracks, as a prisoner, a tall bearded man. At once I knew that this was Sir Roger Casement.
When Stack broke this news to the others in the Rink, the immediate response was a call to attempt a rescue. It was not something Stack could allow, given his orders – as he now revealed – to keep everyone quiet until the appointed time on Sunday. After dissuading the rest from taking any rash action, Stack next arranged for two couriers to be sent to inform Dublin of the developments, from Casement’s arrest to the premature arrival of the German ship.
The latter was a particular problem in Stack’s mind:
I had the view that it would be almost impossible for the vessel to escape on account of the capture of Sir Roger Casement, as the English were now certain to be keeping a sharp look-out everywhere about that part of the coast.
The two messengers knew exactly where to go when they reached Dublin. Eoin MacNeill may have been Chief of Staff of the Irish Volunteers but the true power of the forthcoming revolution had gathered inside Liberty Hall.
James Connolly, Patrick Pearse, Tom Clarke and several others listened as one of the Kerrymen, William Mullins, delivered his report about Casement’s arrest and how, according to Casement, there would be arms coming from Germany but no soldiers. Mullins knew nothing about any uprising, though he must have suspected something upon seeing about sixty or seventy men in a room inside Liberty Hall, busily preparing gun cartridges.
If his listeners were fazed at the news, they did not show it. “There will be no change in the original plans,” Pearse told Mullins to pass on back to Kerry.
Stack, meanwhile, had gone to the RIC barracks as requested, where he asked to speak to Collins. The constable on duty excused himself after asking the visitor to remain in the room, and there an unsuspecting Stack was waiting when, a few minutes later, the constable returned with several of his colleagues to put him under arrest.
It is unlikely that the police were aware of how effectively their capture of Stack had decapitated the Kerry Volunteers, the vast majority of whom were only dimly aware, at best, that anything was in the works. “Apart from rumours and whisperings of things to happen,” remembered Peter Browne, captain of the Scartaglin Company, “the average Volunteer had no official inkling of anything big coming off.”
The man best positioned to take over from Stack was Alf Cotton, the Volunteer organiser from Belfast, but he was nowhere to be found. Browne believed he had returned to his home city earlier in the year, apparently to take care of his sick mother. Cotton would be accused of being intentionally absent by Paddy Cahill, who, despite being next in line as battalion adjutant, knew only a little more than the rank-and-file.
When Browne interviewed him as part of a history project, “Paddy Cahill told me that he had no knowledge of the major plans for Kerry when Stack was arrested.” While Cahill knew there were weapons being shipped in, he had believed, like Stack, that they would not be due until Easter Sunday.
“It later transpired that the sinking of the Aud had completely upset the plans locally and nationally,” Browne wrote. “What the plans for this were never came to light.”
It says much about the confusion surrounding the Easter Week of 1916, even years later, that when Browne suggested he write up his version of events, Cahill replied that he had done so already and sent it to Stack’s widow for the book she was writing about her husband. Browne asked Winifred Stack about it, shortly after Cahill’s death, only to be told that she had not received any such information from him.
Monteith was better informed than most in Kerry; he, at least, knew there was supposed to be a Rising. But, in other respects, he was as woefully ignorant as any.
When the two messengers went to Dublin, Monteith assumed they were making for Eoin MacNeill as Chief of Staff. It never occurred to him that the couriers would go instead to Liberty Hall and bypass the chain of command as he knew it. Nor did his Kerry compatriots make any effort to bring him up to date.
He was a man groping in the dark, as he later described it, a fact that continued to rankle by the time he put pen to paper for his memoirs: “These men with me knew that my life was not worth a moment’s purchase, yet they did not enlighten me.”
By Friday night, Monteith had learnt from the evening papers about the arrests of Stack and Collins, along with the discovery of the boat by which he and the other two had left the U-boat. “It was a peculiar report to read of one’s own adventures,” he mused.
With little else to do until the big event on Sunday, Monteith laid low in a friendly house. That the Volunteers had thought to post an armed guard inside was of some comfort, though otherwise the news on Saturday morning was hardly reassuring: British soldiers had come into Tralee by train, while armed RIC men stalked the streets of the town.
Several times, an enemy patrol would pass by the house, with Monteith watching anxiously from behind a window curtain until they had gone. When he finally ventured out, on Saturday night, it was in a workman’s garb, complete with a greasy cap over his head and chimney soot on his face.
“If the police stop us or try to arrest you,” said one of the Kerrymen to their charge, “we will open fire.”
He meant it as a reassurance, but Monteith was unimpressed. He had not made it thus far without appreciating the virtue of caution, after all. “I am the officer. I have more authority,” he replied tartly. “There is to be no firing.”
Around a dozen other men were waiting for them at the Rink, standing to attention and under the command of Paddy Cahill. At least, Monteith assumed Cahill was in charge, until the Kerryman told him that the authority was now his. Orders had come in to that effect, said Cahill, though he was coy when asked on whose authority. Monteith tried to talk himself out of it, arguing that he knew nothing about Tralee, either the area or its men, but Cahill was adamant.
Finally, Monteith gave in and assumed responsibility, however flabbergasting he found it. “Here was an amazing situation,” he wrote in his memoirs. “An officer, my senior, ordering me to take command, while he reverted to the ranks.”
At least he had his experience as an officer in the British Army to fall back on. Unfortunately, as he talked to his new subordinates in the Rink, it was apparent that the rest of the Irish Volunteers had not had the same level of training. Neither did they know much about what was to be done besides a vague notion of seizing the military barracks, RIC station, telegraph office and train station, before marching to the coastal village of Fenit and unloading the promised German arms from there. Any further details had been known only by Stack, and he was gone.
And then there was the issue of numbers. Monteith estimated he would have three hundred men at his disposal, of which only two-thirds were armed. Word was that reinforcements would join them from Dingle but no one could confirm this. Against them would be five hundred British soldiers and about two hundred policemen, and now with the advantage of surprise lost.
“I knew I had a full day’s work ahead of me,” Monteith recalled laconically.
Monteith sent the officers home for the night while he stayed in the Rink and brooded on what to do. Holy Saturday passed into Easter Sunday, the day set for the Rising, and Monteith received word that at least one of the companies outside Tralee – he spared naming the unit in question for posterity – would not be making the rendezvous with destiny, the Volunteers having decided among themselves that, in light of the absence of German assistance, there was little point in continuing.
Not so doleful, Monteith yet had hope, however slim, in the arms-ship reaching them. To that end, he sent out scouts to Fenit Point, where the vessel was to come – if at all – and another in a car to Killarney in the hope of coordinating with the Irish Volunteers there should the arms arrive and, if so, with the aim of opening the way to their comrades in Limerick. “The Limerick men, I had been told, were to hold the line of the Shannon, what section I did not know, nor for what reason.”
And these questions were to remain unknown, for the messenger to Killarney never returned. The Fenit scouts did, to report the presence of two Royal Navy warships in the bay. So much for the Germans vessel then, for there was no hope now of it breaking through.
At least the two messengers had reached their destination of Dublin, as shown by the return of a verbal message from James Connolly, to the effect that everything was alright and to continue as planned. What these plans were, however, remained sketchy, a situation his Kerry subordinates were of little help in remedying, often seeming to regard him with suspicion, to judge from their evasive, distinctly unhelpful responses to his queries.
In that regard, Monteith was not imagining things. “Cahill did not trust Monteith as he or none of us knew anything about him,” remembered one of the men at the time.
‘The Most Wonderful Part’
A glimmer of hope came with the only-half-expected Dingle contingent, at about 11 am, whose Volunteers had walked the thirty to forty miles to Tralee. Next were the Ballymacelligott men, adding their forty numbers to the Dingle hundred and twenty, while women from Cumann na mBan joined them to prepare some breakfast. Monteith now had about three hundred and twenty men to his command, although only two hundred were armed, either with a rifle or revolver.
Still, despite his professional misgivings, Monteith could not help but be touched by the display:
The most wonderful part of the whole thing, and perhaps the most tragic as I saw it, were boys of fourteen to seventeen years of age, marching in without as much as a walking stick with which to defend themselves, but all in the sure and certain hope of gaining a glorious victory over the usurping English.
Monteith told the Dingle captain to send out his charges with money to purchase supplies, enough for two days, and then be back at the Rink for 1.30 pm, half an hour before they would begin the Rising that would shake an empire. When Monteith asked if they were ready, the Dingle man replied: “Yes, in more ways than one, they have all been to the altar.”
It had started raining by the time a stranger, his face obscured by his collar upturned against the downpour, arrived at the Rink. When Monteith got a better look, he recognised him as Patrick Whelan, an acquaintance of his from their time together in the Limerick Volunteers. Monteith was eager to ascertain how things stood in Limerick but Whelan – after his surprise at seeing Monteith, thinking him still in Germany – brought word that abruptly rendered their plans irrelevant: all operations were to be cancelled. The Rising was over before it had even begun.
“Here was a pretty mix-up,” as Monteith put it, with masterly understatement.
The End of Easter Week
After all the drama and tension of the past few days, Easter Monday was oddly quiet. By the evening, word of fighting in distant Dublin had begun to circulate, galvanising some of the Kerry Volunteers into mobilising that night, at the Rink again. Even then, caution ruled and most of the attendees were dismissed, with only twenty remaining to guard the hall for the night and to receive the scouts who were bringing messengers from the other units around Kerry.
With no one aware of the situation or sufficiently placed, after the loss of Stack and Cotton, to know what to do, all the men could do was wait…and wait.
“Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday passed off quietly,” remembered Peter Browne. “The Rink was full of Volunteers at all times and wild rumours were afloat about Dublin and other places. On Friday there were rumours of a surrender in Dublin.”
These defeatist reports were initially dismissed but, later in the day:
They were confirmed at Volunteer headquarters on Friday night. A meeting was arranged between the local British military officers and some Tralee citizens, including the clergy, which was attended by Volunteer representatives who agreed, in order to avoid arrests, to surrender all arms and ammunition to the military on or before Saturday.
At least the Kerry Volunteers, when this requirement was announced to them on parade on Friday night, could take some measure of defiance in denying the enemy the use of their weapons as the men grabbed hammers or sledges to smash the barrels of their guns. Browne was an exception as he instead smuggled his rifle out of the Rink beneath his coat. Four years passed before he could finally put it to use, in 1920, during an attack on a RIC barracks.
‘One Great Tragedy’
But, for now, it looked as if the movement was beaten. If the Kerry Volunteers had assumed that rolling over in submission would be the end of it, they were rudely disabused the following week, when it was reported, on the 11th May:
A Tralee message says that wholesale arrests of prominent members of the Sinn Fein organisation were effected throughout Kerry on Tuesday [9th May]. In Tralee, cavalry, infantry, and police turned out and halted opposite each house where arrests were made. Excitement ran high, but there was no disturbance.
Such coordination by the RIC and British military showed that the authorities were taking no chances. When William Mullins saw a woman curse some prisoners being led away by British soldiers, he grabbed the Union Jack from her hands and tore it to pieces. He was arrested the next day, and taken to join the other detainees in Tralee Jail.
By then, Stack and Collins had already been removed from the gaol. Since his confinement there on Easter Saturday, Stack had remained out of the loop, save when two friends visited him on Monday to inform him of the cancellation order, leaving Stack to assume that that was the end of their venture.
He was still oblivious when he and Collins were ordered out of their cells on Easter Wednesday, marched to the train under heavy escort and transferred to Cork, and then Queenstown (now Cobh), before taken by steamer to Spike Island. The next three weeks were spent in the purgatory of solitary confinement, ignorant of the world beyond until, on the 13th May, the pair were transported to Dublin.
While en route, their train stopped in Cork. The previously empty carriage they were held in was soon filled with prisoners from the Cork Volunteers. From them, Stack and Collins were able to learn of how rapidly the revolution had moved in their absence:
We were told of the Rising which had taken place in Dublin, Galway and Wexford, and which lasted until the following Sunday, and of the trials and executions…The burning of the GPO and other buildings in O’Connell St., Dublin, and many other details were discussed by our companions and ourselves.
To Stack, his head spinning at these revelations, “the whole thing at the moment seemed to be one great tragedy.”
Failure and/or Success
More prisoners from Kerry and Limerick were added on board when the train paused at Mallow. Upon arrival in the capital – or what was left of it – they were marched en masse to Richmond Barracks, When locked in for the night, Stack and Collins found themselves in distinguished company, in the form of Arthur Griffith, Terence MacSwiney and Pierce McCann, and about thirty others, all crammed in a room meant for twelve, lacking blankets and with only the floorboards to sleep on.
Though conditions remained wretched and the rations no better, Stack was able to converse with MacSwiney, an old friend and the commander of the similarly ill-fated Cork attempt:
We compared notes as to the Insurrection which had taken place, and from the news which had begun to come to us from our visitors, we began to have hope that the people of the country had had the spirit of Nationality re-awakened in them.
Such revived patriotism was on full display on the 31st August 1917, fifteen months after the Rising, at Caherciveen, where five hundred Kerry Volunteers assembled to welcome Stack, now a freed man, his life sentence having been revoked as part of the general amnesty. After a parade through the streets, the Volunteers drew up before a platform in the town square, from which a number of speakers, Stack among them, spoke to mark the forming of the local Sinn Féin Club, one of many which had been springing up all over Kerry and the rest of the country. The Caherciveen one alone could boast of two hundred members inducted on its opening day.
Stack had earlier attended, on the 28th July 1917, the Listowel Feis, as part of the promotion of the Irish tongue. After a lengthy address by Count Plunkett, whose son had been among those executed after the Rising, Stack next took the stage, appearing almost bashful before the crowd.
“Women and men of North Kerry, I can’t account for the fact that I am here today,” he began:
Or that I should be welcomed by you because, personally, I know I have done nothing to merit your kind reception. The little I had got to do in the matter of 1916 was, shall I say, somewhat of a failure.
This self-deprecation was met with cries of “It was a success!” When Stack continued, stating that he was no orator, nor intended to ever become one, a voice from the crowd suggested something better – “You’re a fighter!” – to general applause from an appreciative audience.
Regardless of what others said, Stack held no illusions as to whether the Rising in Kerry had been a success. Nor was he inclined to spare himself reproach. “I tried to keep it a one-man job,” he bemoaned in private, “and it was too much.”
Stack had kept the plans so secret that his subordinates had been left floundering in his absence. His importance was singled out by County Inspector Hill, when testifying, on the 27th May 1916, to the Royal Commission, set up to investigate the disturbances of the month before:
Austin Stack was in charge of everything, and when he was arrested the Irish Volunteers who were assembled in Tralee became nervous. Those of them who were from the country districts gradually left for home.
This lack of coordination came under particular scrutiny by Sir Mackenzie Chalmers, one of the three members of the Commission, when he reviewed the checkmating of the Aud. Intercepted by British warships, the German vessel had been scuttled by its crew, who had then been taken into captivity.
Sir Mackenzie Chalmers: The German ship intended to land at Tralee?
Hill: Yes, by force.
Chalmers: There was not much preparation to receive it? Only two men in a motor car?
Hill: There was a large number in Tralee. My idea is that the ship came in a day or two too soon. She was unpunctual.
Another person of interest, Robert Monteith, was noted to be still at large.
After the countermanding order had arrived at the Rink, Monteith decided that, since there was no further use for him with no Rising, the only thing he could do was run. The RIC were still on the lookout for the third man off the submarine, after all, and a strange face like his would be easy to pick out.
As a cover for his escape, it was arranged for him to leave after dark, amidst the Ballymacelligott Company while pretending to be just another local man. True to the secrecy that had characterised, and hamstrung, the Kerry Volunteers, only the Ballymacelligott captain and two others knew of Monteith’s identity.
These pair were put on either side of him as the company marched out of the Rink. A gas lamp lit up the area outside, allowing the police posted outside a good look at the departing Volunteers but the pace of the step, coupled with a downpour, allowed Monteith to escape undetected, hidden in plain sight.
From there, Monteith fled, first to Limerick and then Liverpool, before finally reaching sanctuary in New York. He remained active in his country’s cause, via the Irish-American lobby, and later penned a memoir which captured the Rising-that-was-not in Kerry, in all its confusion.
“If there be readers who think I have been harsh, or unfair, or unduly severe,” he wrote in the preface, “I am sorry; but, I have to deal with men and hard facts.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (Hynes), now cast out into wilds of Galway, trusting in nothing but luck, country charity and their own wits.
Spreading Out of Nothing
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.
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.
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.
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 was abandoned at Limepark spoke at the haste in which the previous occupants had vacated.
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.
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.
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.
Rumours that some of the remaining rebels had retreated 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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
‘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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
The 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.”
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Road to Galway
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Return to Galway
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back in Galway
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ConnachtTribune.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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’.
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).
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.
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.
On the Road
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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’.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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.
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.
 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
Roger Casement was a sick man. Amidst all the uncertainties facing the tiny band of Irish revolutionaries on board the cramped German U-boat, that much was all too clear. Fearful that his companion might collapse under the twin strains of ill health and worry, Robert Monteith suggested that he catch some sleep. Casement tried to but, after half an hour, he was back to fretting.
At the mouth of the Shannon, they had looked out from the conning tower, straining their eyes in the gloom for signs of the Aud, the ship due to deliver the much-needed weapons for the planned uprising. Despite an earlier sighting of the Aud – or what they thought it was – they found nothing. After cruising for an hour and a half, the captain announced they could wait no longer, and directed his submarine towards Tralee Bay.
Before disembarking on the Kerry coast, Monteith took out their firearms and asked his companion: “Do you understand the loading of these Mauser pistols?”
“No, I have never loaded one,” Casement replied. “I have never killed anything in my life.”
“Well, Sir Roger, you may have to start very soon,” Monteith said. “It is quite possible that we may either kill or be killed.”
Monteith tried to teach Casement the basics of handling their pistols, but the other man decided that such skills were not for him and handed the weapons back with a shake of his head.
At least Casement had retained some sense of the occasion. As Monteith bemoaned the incongruity of trying to liberate their country under such woebegotten circumstances, Casement hushed him.
“It will be a much greater adventure going ashore in this cockle shell,” he said, in reference to the small boat they were lowering themselves into.
For Monteith, it was but the latest adventure in what had already been an eventful life. Born in 1878 in Co. Wicklow, he had enrolled in the British Army and was posted to India, during which he was shot in the mouth, dislocated his hip when a horse threw him, and learned to speak a local dialect. Later he volunteered to serve in South Africa, where the ‘scorched earth’ policy he helped inflict during the Boer War gave him a different perspective on the cause he was serving:
In the smoke and red flames of the first Boar [sic] farmhouse I saw burned, there appeared to me the grisly head and naked ribs of the imperialist monster. I realised why the women and children knelt in the shower of sparks to curse us.
Still, in a way, Monteith thought the Indians and the Boers had it easy compared to the people of his own homeland:
I have been in the villages of Bengal and the Punjab in India, and in the kraals of the so-called savages of Africa, with whom it is a crime to beat a child; I have eaten with the Zulu, Basuto, Swazi and the Matabele, and can say without fear of contradiction that the conditions under which these ‘benighted heathens’ live are far above those of the Christian workers of Dublin.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that after all this, not to mention a bout of malaria, a photograph of a uniformed Monteith (below), as he neared his Army discharge after eight years of service, shows a thin, serious-looking man, still only twenty-five.
Back in Ireland, where he owned a small Dublin-based printing press, Monteith’s feelings of discontent crystallised into open outrage upon seeing the beating to death of a man by police (and his own battering when he intervened) during the Dublin Lock-out of 1913, as well as the clubbing of his stepdaughter.
Monteith decided to enlist in the Irish Citizen Army but was persuaded by Tom Clarke, an acquaintance of his, to instead channel his military know-how into the nascent Irish Volunteers. Sworn into the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) by Clarke, Monteith was sufficiently trusted to be offered the chance to assist Casement in Germany, where he was attempting to form an ‘Irish Brigade’ from the inmates of POW camps there.
Monteith agreed and met Casement in Munich, October 1915. Casement made an instant impression on Monteith, who was to wax lyrically about his new colleague: “I have known no eyes more beautiful than Casement’s…Blazing when he spoke of man’s inhumanity to man; soft and wistful when pleading the cause so dear to his heart; mournful when telling the story of Ireland’s century old martyrdom.”
Casement’s story was almost as much Monteith’s as well, so entwined were their lives at this point. Not for nothing was Monteith’s memoir – quoted liberally by Smyth in her book – entitled Casement’s Last Adventure.
The reality of the situation, however, proved to be…challenging. Even then, Casement was visibly ill and nervous. As for the Irish POWs, they were not always a receptive audience. A not-untypical entry in Monteith’s diary read:
3 November 1915: Commenced recruiting campaign at 9 a.m. and continue till noon. Started at 2 p.m. and worked till 5 p.m. These hours were chosen so as not to interfere with meal hours of men. Men seem indifferent. A lot of them are absolutely impossible.
Much to Montheith’s bewilderment, the prisoners seemed too content with their situation for anything as bothersome as reenlistment. “All of them are loud in their statement that when the war is over they will be prepared to fight for Ireland. God help us!” Monteith wrote, and more in a similar vein.
At least a proposal by the IRB Military Council to have a boat loaded with armaments sent to Ireland gave Casement a new lease of life. As Monteith remembered: “He was so happy at the news I brought, that he immediately slipped out of bed, and started to work on plans or suggestions, to help the German General Staff and Admiralty, on the work in hand.”
As it turned out, neither the German Command nor the IRB had much further use or interest in him. When Casement, realising this harsh truth, insisted on going on board the same ship, Monteith tried vainly to talk him out of it. Their German point-men, in contrast, made no such effort. At least Casement and Monteith still had each other, the latter loyally refusing to allow the other to risk himself alone.
Smyth’s book reads like a novel, fast-paced and by turns exciting and depressing. Poor Casement! Monteith at least managed to avoid capture in Kerry. He left Casement, too sickly to carry on, in an ancient ring-fort that would provide some shelter. By the time Monteith reached Tralee and alerted the local Irish Volunteers, Casement had already been found and arrested by a police patrol.
Hiding out in Tralee, Monteith could still hope that the Aud would finally arrive with its catchment, but even that was not to be. With orders, countermanding orders and general confusion marking the Rising-that-was-not-to-be in Kerry, Monteith wisely turned down the offer to command the Irish Volunteers gathering in Tralee.
Instead, he went on the run, managing to stay one step ahead of his police pursuers, and eventually made it to the safety of New York. He was by then suffering from nervous exhaustion, something which the readers will relate to by the time they come to the end of this gripping book.
While awaiting the hangman’s noose, an imprisoned Casement wrote to his sister to say: “The only person alive, if he is alive, who knows the whole of my coming and why I came, with what aim and hope, is Monteith. I hope he is still alive and you may see him and he will tell you everything.”
Monteith told a lot more people via his memoirs, and it is fitting that the same tragi-comic story should continue to be told here. What a tale! And what an adventure, as Casement observed, albeit not a very happy one.
“It is a true fact that the greatest swordsman in Italy would not fear the second greatest but would fear the worst, for that one would be unpredictable” – The Masque of Red Death (1964)
A Simple Soul
Towards noon on Easter Monday 1916, Monsignor Michael J. Curran received word that Count George Plunkett was waiting outside his office. Guessing that this would be about some new development in the unfolding, but so far still uncertain, situation in Dublin, Monsignor Curran agreed to see him.
Five minutes later, Curran was sitting with the Count, grey-haired and bearded. His caller asked to see the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr William Walsh, to whom Curran was secretary. Curran replied that His Grace was ill in bed and not to receive anyone except his doctor.
Which was not entirely true but the Monsignor’s duties included acting as gatekeeper to his master. Things were tense enough as it was, what with the news of Roger Casement’s arrest in Kerry, the planned mobilisation of the Irish Volunteers and the abrupt countermanding orders by their Chief of Staff, Eoin MacNeill.
“Well,” said the Count, according to Curran’s recollections, “it is not necessary that I see him personally but, if you would tell him, it would be alright.”
Plunkett proceeded to inform Curran that there was going to be an uprising in Ireland and that he had already visited Pope Benedict XV in Rome to inform him of such. His Holiness had been asked not to be shocked or alarmed as the rebellion was to be purely in pursuit of the same independence that every country was entitled to. The Count had then asked for the Pontiff’s blessing for the endeavour.
Monsignor Curran was still listening to the story when the telephone rang in his office. Curran answered it to learn that the General Post Office (GPO) had just been seized and occupied by the Irish Volunteers. He returned to inform his visitor that the uprising the latter had warned about was already underway. Curran would later consider it noteworthy that Plunkett had come to him on the day the rebellion began and not before, presumably to leave no window of opportunity for the Archbishop to change anyone’s mind.
Once his visitor had left, Curran hurried to relay what had occurred to his superior. Even after being told the Count’s message, Walsh was more concerned about what MacNeill, rather than Plunkett, might do, looking upon the Count as less of a leader and more “as a simple soul and [he] could not conceive a man like him being at the head of a revolution.”
A Conservative Catholic Gentleman
The Archbishop’s scepticism was understandable, considering how the Count had never shown a radical bone in his body. As far as many were concerned, he was simply:
…a conservative Catholic gentleman with harmless literary and cultural tastes which his job as Director of the National Gallery (bestowed on him by the Liberal Government) gave him ample time and opportunity to indulge in.
This, at least, was the view of the political activist Kevin O’Shiel. It was not an altogether wrong one, though O’Shiel was incorrect about the Gallery. According to Geraldine Plunkett, her father had been offered its directorship by Dublin Castle in the spring of 1916 on the condition that his family stay out of politics but he defiantly turned it down (being already the director of the National Museum, which was probably what O’Shiel meant).
Similar sentiments were expressed by William O’Brien, a trade unionist who had been closely involved in the planning of the Rising. O’Brien knew very little about Plunkett by the time the latter grew in prominence in early 1917, only that he had previously only seen his name “in connection with various projects supported by people of the Unionist type.” Whatever else about the Count, O’Brien certainly did not think of him as much of a Nationalist.
In fact, the Count had had a reasonably active time in politics as a Nationalist, and an honourable one at that. This tended to be overlooked, much like how Walsh, O’Shiel and O’Brien were content to discount the man in general. And yet, for a while, it looked as if the post-Rising upheaval would be regarded as the Plunkett Revolution.
Born in 1851 as a privileged scion of an illustrious name (the 17th century St. Oliver Plunkett was an ancestor), George Noble Plunkett was sent abroad to a Jesuit school in Nice at the age of six. The reason for this was to protect his health and, as he was the only one of his three siblings to survive to adulthood, this may have been a wise precaution.
Recently ceded to France by Italy, Nice was at a cultural crossroads, and there young George grew up fluent in French, Italian and Niçoise. George, according to a flattering write-up in the Catholic Bulletin, was sufficiently immersed in such a cosmopolitan environment to temporarily forget English but he remained, nonetheless, “in feeling intensely Irish.”
This may be a slight exaggeration as he was not to return to Ireland until 1862, aged eleven. Afterwards, though, he would have ample opportunity to show the intensity of these Irish feelings of his.
Even at an early age, his passion for art, literature and other forms of high culture was evident. He became a regular visitor to various art galleries in Europe, and collected a string of presidencies or vice-presidencies at societies such as the Academy of Christian Science, the Royal Irish Academy and the Society of Catholic Poetry.
George soon developed a system on how best to explore a gallery: (1) a visit should never last more than two hours, for past that and mental fatigue sets in, (2) always focus on the best pieces even to the exclusion of the rest (advice he was happy to pass on to anyone interested).
George made his mark on the literary scene when he published a collection of his poetry, God’s Chosen Festival (A Christmas Song) and Other Poems in 1877. Many of the poem titles – such as ‘Ave Maria’, ‘The Sleep of the Infant Jesus’ and ‘An Orphan’s Prayer to the Blessed Virgin’ – display a distinctly Catholic sensibility, with the occasional foray into Irish nationalism, such as in ‘To Ireland’, where he laments the subject’s history:
Upon reviewing some later poems of Plunkett’s in 1921, the novelist Katherine Tynan summed up the main themes as “two strains – God and Ireland, sometimes single, oftener intermingled.” As Plunkett was then prominently involved in Irish politics, Tyan could not resist making the connection: “In a sense, such poetry…bears witness for Sinn Fein. That the singer of these noble numbers should be of the movement is eloquent.”
One could debate the quality of the poems and perhaps compare them unfavourably to that of his eldest son’s, Joseph Mary Plunkett, whose works, such as ‘I See His Blood Upon the Rose’ and ‘I Saw the Sun at Midnight’, are still recited today. George Plunkett’s efforts, on the other hand, have almost entirely receded from public consciousness. As a literary man, his legacy can perhaps be felt through that of Joseph’s, who followed in his father’s footsteps in his ambition to be a poet.
Taste and Scholarship
George did not hoard his talents to himself. From 1883 to 1884, he was editor of the Hibernia, a literary journal with a good deal of, in Tynan’s opinion, “taste and scholarship.” As a budding writer herself, Tynan had contributed a couple of her poems. That the Hibernia, alas, did not last long, Tynan attributed to it being “too bookish” for the philistines of Dublin (she remained friends with Plunkett, with him donating a few books for her shelves, and later sent a cheque for copies of her first publication).
He had by then married his second cousin, Mary Josephine Cranny (who went by her middle name), in 1884. A fruitful union, the couple went on to produce seven children – four girls and three boys. Their two families had worked closely for years, becoming rich in property together. As a sign of how little money was a concern, George and Josephine were set up a year after their wedding in 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin, the residence having been bought, furnished and decorated by the former’s father.
George could be equally generous with others. The nuns of the Little Company of Mary had been asked by Pope Leo XIII in 1883 to set up a centre in Rome. George happened to be there at the time and in a position to assist with the purchasing and refurbishment of the new convent.
He was rewarded a year later with the title of Papal Count. It was, apparently, something of a “source of great embarrassment and annoyance to him… as an ardent Nationalist he did not like being mistaken for some kind of English or Continental aristocrat” (Josephine, on the other hand, was delighted to be addressed as Countess by friends and servants alike). It was not until he was requested by the Vatican to use the title, and from then on, he was Count Plunkett to the world.
That is, at least, according to his daughter Geraldine, who left a memoir that is revealing in its depiction of the Plunkett home life but also problematic due to her naked prejudices. She adored her father and loathed her mother, and it is thus not surprising that her reminisces frequently leaned in favour of one parent at the expense of the other.
For one, Geraldine overlooked how her father was capable of stubborn streaks throughout his life, and it is unlikely that even the Holy Father could have forced him into bearing a title he did not want (he was not above using it for political point-scoring, though – when a rival Nationalist sneered at the title, Plunkett retorted that since it had been awarded by the Pope, any slight on the title was thus a slur against the Vicar of Christ).
Secondly, Geraldine’s depiction of her mother as an insufferable, tight-fisted harridan does not necessarily chime with that of others’. The future Fianna Fáil minister, Todd Andrews, was a regular visitor to the family house after the Civil War, and found the Countess to be “a kind and humorous woman who could laugh at her own oddities.”
But then, Andrews did not have to live with her. George came out of his study one time to find his wife beating their daughter Moya mercilessly with her fists in the hallway, the crime of the wretched girl being to ask her miserly mother to buy her sister Fiona a coat for the winter.
As told by Geraldine, ‘Pa’ Plunkett somehow interpreted the scene as Moya attacking the Countess instead of vice versa, and began thrashing Moya with his walking-stick. Joseph intervened to snatch the stick away and break it over his knee:
Ma took this as a personal insult and redoubled her screaming. Joe comforted Moya while Pa, realising his mistake, stood helplessly patting her on the head to show he was sorry. By the time I came in, Pa had retreated to the study, Ma to the dining-room, and Joe was still trying to comfort poor Moya.
At least Fiona ended up with a new winter-coat after all that.
“You must remember that Mammy is only a little girl,” Plunkett told Geraldine by way of explanation after the latest fight with her mother.An indulgent parent, more a friend than an authority figure to his children, Count Plunkett preferred to avoid household drama – Jane Austen’s Mr Bennett would have understood.
One Missing Plank
One source of drama which Count Plunkett did display an interest in was politics; unfortunately, those already in politics did not reciprocate with an interest in him. He wrote to T.D. Sullivan, the Nationalist Member of Parliament (MP), in 1885, asking to be proposed for the Irish National League of Charles Stewart Parnell, whose words Plunkett quoted about how the national platform lacked but “one plank” – with himself presumably being that missing plank.
If Plunkett had been hoping to ingratiate himself with Parnell’s colleagues, then he was in for a rude awakening. Sullivan’s reply could not have been more condescending. Plunkett, he wrote back, must have taken the line about the plank too literally. “It seems to me,” Sullivan continued, “that if that be so, your joining the League might possibly some day bring disappointment to you, and I would not like to be party thereto.”
The main barrier to Plunkett was his hostility towards the Land League, by then supressed and to which the National League was intended to replace, focusing this time on the issue of Home Rule rather than of land distribution like before. Plunkett’s attitude towards the Land League still rankled with Sullivan: “I can well remember how bitterly opposed you were.”
Academic debates, Sullivan warned, were not enough to win Home Rule – which sums up what he thought of the other man’s style. Also, Home Rule would not be the sole focus of the new League. With the issues of land unresolved and requiring their full attention for the moment, Sullivan took “the liberty of suggesting that you should very well consider your course before ‘casting your lot,’ as the saying is, with the leaders of the National League.”
Although stonewalled from politics, Plunkett could not avoid being affected by the ‘Divorce Crisis’ in 1890, which saw Parnell exposed as an adulterer and a political liability. Most of his allies deserted him, including the caustic T.D. Sullivan; one who did not was George Plunkett.
That the Count would stand by the stricken statesman surprised even the former’s friend, Tynan, who saw him as “one of those trusted Catholic laymen who represented the best and most orthodox Catholic feeling of Dublin” – in other words, a very conventional man. Yet he was prepared to go against the tide when he felt it necessary, a fact that impressed Tynan. Together, they endured the “obloquy, the unjust condemnation, the wrongs”, as she put it, from the Anti-Parnellites (while such words may strike the modern reader as excessively dramatic, events in Mid-Tyrone would show them to be, if anything, understated).
Such unjust obloquy did much to toughen up the Count. In a letter to John Redmond in 1895, Plunkett advised his fellow Parnellite on the best ways to deal with power-brokering clerics such as Dr William Walsh. Redmond was feuding with the Archbishop over stories unflattering to the Church that had appeared in newspapers controlled by the politician. Due to past experience teaching him to “neither fear nor despise the clergy,” Plunkett advised Redmond to moderate such stories, which would hopefully persuade the Archbishop to side with them against their Anti-Parnell rivals.
Such talk sat oddly with his public proofs of piety – in addition to the papal counthood, he amassed an impressive set of papal medals: the Cross of Commander of the Holy Sepulchre, the Grand Cross of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the Cross of the Order of the Advocates of St Peter, and two medals of the Cross of St John of Lateran for him and his wife.
But then, as indicated by his earlier defence of Parnell in the teeth of clerical condemnation – and how his visit to Rome on the eve of the Easter Rising would show – Count Plunkett was quite capable of following his own mind, even where Holy Mother Church was concerned.
Plunkett stayed loyal to Parnell to the end, the latter dropping in to see him before leaving for England in 1891. Unfortunately, the Count was out of the house at the time. After waiting for a long while, Parnell left, saying only as he departed: “Perhaps it is just as well.” He died shortly afterwards. Plunkett, who was already upset at having missed Parnell, mourned him deeply.
From then on, the Count took a more active role in politics, albeit with mixed results. In the 1892 general election, he stood as the Parnellite candidate for Mid-Tyrone, the sundered Irish National League no longer able to be quite so fussy in who it took.
That the Parnellite faction could put forward a candidate at all was a surprise. When the news was announced on posters around the town of Omagh, many Anti-Parnellites were inclined to regard it as a joke. It was not until a delegation of Parnellites left Omagh on the evening of the 18th June to greet their incoming candidate that the matter was confirmed.
The Count arrived in town, with a torchlight procession and the sounds of band music, through streets filled with knots of curious onlookers. Plunkett – “who spoke under difficulties,” according to a local newspaper – explained to the crowd his Party’s stance, which was that of the late Parnell, “the policy which his followers over his grave at Glasnevin had pledged themselves to carry out.” Though an outsider, Plunkett busied himself with paying personal visits around the constituency.
The election was to be a three-way contest. According to Geraldine, her father withdrew in order to support his Anti-Parnellite counterpart, Matthew Joseph Kenny, lest he split the Nationalist vote and allow in a Unionist. However, that is untrue, as the parliamentary records show that he continued to stand and received 123 votes, compared to Kenny’s 3,667 and the Unionist candidate’s 2,590. The best that could be said of such a result is that at least Plunkett’s share was too small to have threatened the other Nationalist.
There was nothing that could be said against Plunkett’s courage, however. While making the electioneering rounds by wagon, his party was attacked upon stopping at the Catholic churchyard of Carrickmore by its Anti-Parnellite congregation when their parish priest recognised the rival candidate (it is unclear if the padre had incited the crowd or merely made his hostility known to them). Plunkett was punched in the mouth and, bleeding heavily, hurried back with his companions to their wagon, on which they narrowly escaped amidst a hail of stones.
Little wonder, then, that after the election results were read out on the 8th July, Plunkett praised his fellow loser, the Unionist candidate, as having behaved honourably, while pointedly omitting Kenny and the conduct of his followers.
At least his time there was not to be a complete waste. Three years later, the poet Alice Milligan asked him for the names of Tyrone Nationalists to help gather interest for her politically-themed publications. Literature, art and culture were always there as consolations for Count Plunkett when politics failed.
St Stephen’s Ward
Plunkett picked himself up from this loss to stand again for Parliament in 1895, this time for the St Stephen’s Green Ward, Dublin, which was at least a more plausible seat than faraway Tyrone. He was also better prepared this time, taking care to announce and explain his candidacy in an open letter to the newspapers:
Having been selected by a National Convention to contest your division, I gladly accept the task imposed on me.
I am in complete accord with the Independent [Parnellite] Party. I have always held the Policy of Independence of English Parties to be Ireland’s only hope in the Imperial Parliament.
As I do not seek a seat in Parliament as a stepping-stone to office, I will not subordinate the interests of Ireland to any other interest whatsoever.
As a Catholic, I am in favour of Denominational Education.
I am in favour of Peasant Proprietary for Ireland.
I sympathise warmly with the movement for the release of political prisoners,
I will do all in my power for the welfare of the Irish working man, and for the promotion and protection of Irish industries.
It is now our duty to wrest the St Stephen’s Green Division from the Unionist, and to show by our energy and enthusiasm that Ireland is solid for Home Rule.
To secure the result, upon which such vital interests may depend, EVERY HOME RULE VOTE MUST BE POLLED.
His support for peasant landownership may have come as a surprise to those who had known his aversion towards the Land League. Everything else was standard Nationalist aspiration, particularly the appeal to Home Rule, even if that was very much dead in the water for the while.
This time Count Plunkett was the sole Nationalist candidate, standing against a Unionist, William Kenny (who, by a strange coincidence, shared the same surname as Plunkett’s archenemy in Mid-Tyrone three years ago, although there was no relation). Still, the election was a tense one, with the Irish Times noting that on polling day:
The aspect of Dublin yesterday was unusual. The air was fully charged with political electricity, and for years past the city has not seen busier or more anxious hours than those of the intervals during which the polling booth remained open.
Plunkett and Kenny were seen putting in their fair shares of electioneering work as they drove around to the various polling stations and encouraged their respective adherents throughout the day. Despite the Count’s efforts, Kenny was to be announced as the victor, beating his Nationalist foe by 3,661 votes to 3,205.
Opportunity knocked again for Plunkett the aspiring politician when, three years later, Kenny was appointed a judge, prompting a by-election for St Stephen’s Ward. Once more, Plunkett was defeated by a Unionist candidate, though the results were closer this time – 3,525 to 3,387.
The cause for this second defeat was attributed by Nationalist critics to a system whereby “lodgers” – the sons of local Unionists – who normally lived in England could stay in their families’ homes in Dublin for a minimum of twelve months to count as lodgers and thus vote in the elections.
Polling day had been notably skittish. Even before the results were known, Plunkettite canvassers were handing out cards objecting to the unfair odds against them. “Notice to Lodger voters take notice,” they read, “That the vote of every person who is registered as a lodger, and who has not signed his claim himself, is objected to, and if necessary, will be objected to on a petition.”
Large placards to the same effect were put up around the constituency. The rebellious mood spread to the polling booths. In Pembroke, a polling clerk made himself conspicuous by pestering ‘lodger’ voters with questions like “What rent do you pay?” Another clerk of Nationalist sympathies attempted to stop a voter on the grounds that he had already left the house for which his name was on the register. The voter, however, insisted on his rights and his contribution to the ballot was duly noted.
The military authorities had caught wind of the tension. To avoid the risk of further unrest, they confined their troops stationed nearby to their barracks for the duration of the poll. Those soldiers entitled to vote were allowed passes to leave on condition that they return at once when done.
Stymied yet again, Plunkett at least had found a cause to work on, and he campaigned for two years to change these rigged electoral procedures. His efforts bore fruit by 1900 when a Nationalist candidate finally took St Stephen’s Ward at 3,429 votes to the Unionist’s 2,873.
The Count had not stood that time. Geraldine attributed his withdrawal from politics to the mutual dislike between him and John Redmond, leader of the reunited Irish Party, not to mention the opposition of his hard-headed wife (who held the purse-strings) to any more expensive elections.
Corroborating this explanation are letters by John Redmond, one from 1896 in which he regretfully – but nonetheless quite firmly – declined to pay for the expenses incurred by Plunkett as part of the unsuccessful election for St Stephen’s Ward the previous year. The Count made one last push for reimbursement in 1902, but received the same rebuff from Redmond, who pleaded money shortages – “It is not a fact I am sorry to say that the National Organisations are well provided with funds” – and ended with how he saw “great difficulty in dealing with the matter satisfactorily to you.”
For all his hard work and money spent, Plunkett had not progressed in the Irish Party from anything higher than a hanger-on. The professional politicians who the Count had aspired to join had had a use for him before, and now, with the Party reunited, they did not.
Frustrated, Plunkett threw himself into his studies, in particular the writing of a scholarly work on Sandro Botticelli, the Renaissance painter about whom he felt strongly enough to name one of his dogs after. The Renaissance in general was a topic close to his heart; his favourite reading material being, besides the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy. When Todd Andrews was invited to inspect the Count’s considerable library, he was too distracted by the “splendid collection” of books on Renaissance art to investigate the rest of the shelves.
Published in 1900, Sandro Botticelli was a success, and earned its author a string of honorary memberships at the Academy of St Luke in Rome, the Academy of the Fine Arts in Florence, and the Pontifical Academy of Fine Arts and Letters of the Virtuosi al Pantheon.
Plunkett went from strength to strength in 1907 when he was made Director of the National Museum. He would regard it as much a calling as a job, and as work in service to the nation. “To my mind a museum is more than a system,” he told a conference of the Museums’ Association in 1912. “It is a part of the national life, it is an expression of the national life and of the higher qualities of the people to whom it belongs.”
One cause for development was that, while the Museum had many ancient objects from Ireland – “We are fortunate in having the greatest collection of Celtic antiquities in Europe,” as he put it – the exhibitions were lacking in later items: “There is the long period during the occupation of Ireland by the English, which is hardly represented at all. We have works of extraordinary beauty extending down as far as the thirteenth century, but then occurs this gap which we have hitherto been unable to fill.” And it was important that this gap in question be filled, “so that our people may be in a position to realise vividly the elements of their own past.”
Equipped with this vision and passion, Plunkett thrived, as did the Museum, such as when he succeeded in dramatically increasing attendance levels from a hundred students in one year to three thousand in another. A theatre room was built, where the Director took the opportunity to mix pleasure with business, and used the venue to deliver lectures of his own.
“To have had lessons on art history from a master such as Count Plunkett does not fall to the lot of many,” was how an appreciative Andrews described his time with him.
He was to remain in that happy role for nine years until the Easter Week of 1916 threw the country into turmoil and uprooted his quiet, orderly life. It was an upset he had had some small hand in.
A Family Affair
By the time of the Rising, the Plunkett family had already been steeped in the sort of politics that Dublin Castle had tried to tempt the Count out of with its National Gallery offer. The clan patriarch was preoccupied with the demands of running his museum (there was no doubt that it was ‘his’), and so it was the new generation who led the charge.
In November 1913, Joseph, saw a notice in certain newspapers, calling a meeting to organise an Irish Volunteer force in order to ensure and, if necessary, fight for the passing of the Home Rule Bill The notice was signed by Eoin MacNeill, co-founder of the Gaelic League.
Joseph was intrigued but, stricken with tuberculosis as he was, not think much of his chances of being accepted, plaintively asking his sister Geraldine: “Do you think I could be of any use? I’m afraid I won’t be able to do very much.”
Geraldine encouraged him to try anyway. After an encouraging talk with MacNeill, Joseph attended the meeting, held on the 25th in a skating rink at the back of the Rotunda Rooms on Parnell Square. Much to his surprise, Joseph found himself on the platform and nominated to the Provisional Committee of the newly-founded Irish Volunteers, under the chairmanship of MacNeill and in the company of other soon-to-be celebrated men such as Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh.
Joseph returned home excited and not a little confused by his sudden elevation, which Geraldine attributed to his friendships with insiders in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), some of whom were also on the committee. In time, he would be inducted into that oath-bound secret society and, later, its Military Council (which also included Pearse and MacDonagh).
This was despite not being, as his brother Jack admitted, the most practical of people (few in the family were, their mother notwithstanding), his talents instead lying with the suggestion of ideas that others could then implement.
Personal connections also played a role. Joseph had met MacDonagh when the latter was hired in 1909 to tutor him for exams. His resultant low marks did not stop the two from developing a friendship. Both shared literary and poetic tastes, and the pair worked together on the Irish Review magazine, of which MacDonagh was editor. MacDonagh might also have been the one to introduce Joseph to fellow poet Pearse, possibly in 1910 or 1911, making the Military Council sometimes seem like the continuation of the same social circle.
The other Plunkett siblings were not to be left out. Though still a schoolboy, Jack also joined the Volunteers, later working full-time on Joseph’s staff. His main duties were the rigging of wireless radios, at which he admitted to being largely unsuccessful (Jack was still the most technically-minded Plunkett, and in later years would indulge in his hobby of tinkering with motor-car engines).
For her part, Geraldine made to join Cumann na mBan, but was dissuaded by Joseph. Unwilling to risk letters or telephones, her older brother wanted her to relay messengers on his behalf to his co-conspirators, a role which would be easier to perform without attracting the notice of Dublin Castle detectives if she was unknown to them.
Secrecy became the watchword of the day. Jack only learnt years later that he and the third Plunkett brother, George Oliver, had worked on the same project – he could not remember which – despite the two of them living under the same roof. It was not until Easter Week, when the brothers were holed up together in the GPO, that Joseph felt comfortable enough to talk to Jack about certain, previously hush-hush matters.
The family property at Larkfield in Kimmage, south of Dublin, was utilised into a base for the younger Plunketts as they became more involved in radical politics. Consisting of twelve acres of land, with yards, paddocks, an old farm and a mill, complete with a “beautiful middle-sized house…and a garden full of roses,” Larkfield had originally been purchased by the Countess for the family (one of the few times Geraldine was prepared to concede when her mother had not been a complete ogress).
Given the poor state of Joseph’s health, it was easier for his IRB partners to visit him in Larkfield as he had taken to living there along with the rest of the family. Their paterfamilias was the last to join them, and 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street was left to store his books, receive mail but otherwise gather dust. The Count soon settled into a pleasant routine of heading off to the Museum for a day’s work before walking back to Kimmage from the tram at Harold’s Cross.
He was presumably unconcerned about the growing number of young men on the Larkfield property. Unsettled by the threat of conscription, these newcomers had departed from Britain, intending to fight at home for their country rather than in France for another.
“Suddenly one morning about forty young men descended on us,” was how Geraldine remembered the beginning of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’, as they became known by. The numbers of this impromptu company swelled to approximately ninety members, fresh off the boat from cities such as London, Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow.
They were kept busy with military drills in between the manufacture of munitions, namely shotgun pellets and cast-iron grenades. One member proudly recounted how, on a peak night, they could produce up to five thousand lead pellets and twenty grenades, sometimes working twenty-four hour shifts.
Joseph’s work on the Military Council intensified. After Christmas 1915, he told Geraldine that he was off to Germany, which she assumed was for the purpose of procuring weapons. He entrusted his sister with the cipher he would use in any letters sent, to be passed on to her via a cousin and then forwarded to Pearse or another of the conspirators.
He did not trust his mother as much, telling her only that he was leaving for the Continent. In an insight into the complicated dynamics of the household, Joseph changed his mind and informed the Countess that he was going on Volunteer business that might take him to Germany. When Geraldine asked him why “on God’s earth he had done such a thing,” he replied that their mother, adept at prying as she was, would have found out anyway.
Count Plunkett’s involvement, if any, goes unstated in Geraldine’s memoir until early April 1916, when the reader learns of him being sworn into the IRB by Joseph. Geraldine did not record her father’s thoughts on the matter, only that “he was very pleased that his son was now his superior officer.”
But Pa Plunkett was not to be just another ordinary member, for his son had a very particular mission in mind for his new subordinate.
On Easter Sunday, W.J. Brennan-Whitmore was preparing for the start of the uprising in Dublin when he was informed by his commanding officer, Thomas MacDonagh, that Count Plunkett had just returned from Rome, bringing with him the blessing of the Pope for their venture. While pleased to hear such news, Brennan-Whitmore could not help but wonder, just a little, for “it seemed unusual,” and he was still not wholly convinced by the time he penned his memoirs years later.
Brennan-Whitmore was not the only one uncertain, and it was to answer such doubts that Count Plunkett told his side of the story in a brief article for the Irish Press newspaper in 1933:
I have heard that it is denied that I went to Rome immediately before the Rising of 1916 to communicate with His Holiness, Pope Benedict XV. I had no desire to publish information that at the time was not intended for the Press; but now I must disclose certain facts in the interest of truth.
Why he had waited so long before revealing all was left unstated. A need for secrecy seems unlikely, given the length of time that had passed, not to mention how participation in the Rising rapidly became a badge of honour (and political asset) in the months that followed. That the Count had managed for seventeen years to refrain from publicising his role in the most celebrated rebellion in national history – despite the advantages it would have brought to his subsequent career as a Republican firebrand – was an impressive act of restraint in itself.
About three weeks before the Rising, I was, through my son Joseph, commissioned by the Executive of the Irish Volunteers (the Provisional Government) to act as their Envoy on the Continent.
According to Geraldine (whose account fills in some of the gaps in her father’s), Joseph had heard news of the visit of the British Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, to the Vatican. Concerned that His Holiness might be pressured or persuaded to instruct his Irish bishops to condemn any rebellion, Joseph decided that his father would make the best emissary to plead their case. As a papal count, he was, after all, entitled to such an audience.
One task given to me I needed not particular here. When it was carried out, I went onto Rome, according to my instructions.
The task in question was to send a communication to Germany where Sir Roger Casement was attempting to solicit aid for the rebels. The Count was to memorise the message (papers being too vulnerable to carry around) before sending it from neutral Switzerland en route to Italy. Again, it is unclear as to why he felt the need to omit this detail – perhaps he was simply concerned about the length of the article.
Having arrived at his destination, the Count was granted his audience with Pope Benedict:
For nigh on two hours we discussed freely the question of the coming struggle for Irish independence. The Pope was much moved when I disclosed the fact that the date for the Rising was fixed and the reason for that decision. Finally, I stated that the Volunteer Executive pledged the Republic to fidelity to the Holy See and the interests of religion. Then the Pope conferred His Apostolic Benediction on the men who were facing death for Ireland’s liberty.
The wording makes it sound as if Plunkett was handing the country over on a silver platter. Most likely, he was reassuring the Pope that the insurgents had no distastefully left-leaning, anti-clerical or – God forbid – socialist tendencies.
(Such consideration for papal sensitivity was not untypical. Four years later, Sean T. O’Kelly stressed to the same pontiff that “as practising Catholics we have never allowed our national movement for independence to be contaminated by anti-religious or other dangerous movements condemned by the Church.”)
The article also gives the impression that the Pope took all of this in with serene acceptance. Plunkett gave a more dramatic version to Geraldine, in which the Vicar of Christ bestowed his blessing with tears of sympathy pouring down his face.
Monsignor Curran’s record of what the Count had told him on Easter Monday was less striking but perhaps more likely. Here, Benedict XV comes across as noticeably circumspect upon being asked to approve of a venture that had just been sprung on him:
The Pope showed great perturbation and asked was there no peaceful way out of the difficulty…Count Plunkett answered every question, making it plain that it was the will of the leaders of the movement to act entirely with the good-will or approval – I forget which now – of the Pope and to give an assurance that they wished to act as Catholics. It was for that reason they came to inform his Holiness. All the Pope could do was express his profound anxiety.
One consistent detail in the different versions is how Plunkett informed the Pope that the date of the uprising was fixed, leaving the latter with no chance at dissuasion. It was the same Machiavellian deference he would apply when dropping in to see Archbishop Walsh. The Count may have been a man of a lofty intellect and cultured tastes, but he was also capable of low cunning when it was called for.
Count Plunkett finished his article with his return to Ireland, just in time for the big event:
Back in Dublin on Good Friday, 1916, I sent in my report on the results of my mission to the Provisional Government. In the General Post Office, when the fight began, I saw again the portion of that paper relating to my audience with His Holiness in 1916.
According to Geraldine, her father arrived back in Ireland on Holy Thursday and spent the remaining four days before the Rising travelling around the country to meet with various bishops to request that they also refrain from condemnation. Geraldine thought he visited five bishops altogether, but Monsignor Curran was not aware of any of this when he saw the Count on Easter Monday, and it is hard to believe that these other bishops would not have passed word to the Archbishop of Dublin beforehand.
Count Plunkett omitted his talk with Curran in his 1933 article and also how afterwards, according to Geraldine, he had made his way to the GPO, with the Rising unfolding all around, to ask Joseph to take him on as another Volunteer. Recognising that a 65-year old man did not make for an credible soldier, Joseph told his father that they had enough men inside already and instead sent him home.
In the meantime, the members of the ‘Kimmage Garrison’ had been preparing themselves. Pearse had addressed them a week before, urging them to be ready. His enthusiasm was infectious and the men looked forward to Easter Sunday when they would finally see action.
When Sunday came, the ‘Garrison’ was assembled and armed when a car pulled up at Larkfield with the news that the operation was cancelled.
The following day saw the men in a sullen mood. Before, they had been early risers to a man but now they did nothing but lounge about. The only flicker of interest was in the talk of heading into town to start their own insurrection, orders and countermands be damned.
It was sometime before noon when a whistle blew, calling the ‘Garrison’ into line. George Oliver Plunkett, the 22-year old younger brother of Joseph, had been placed in charge – no one seemed perturbed by such nepotism – and was now wearing, according to one of his subordinates, “a broad, proud, confident smile.”
George read out a dispatch, saying they were to parade at Liberty Hall. To the men, this could mean only one thing: they would have their Rising after all. Enthusiasm overrode discipline as they broke ranks and ran to gather their weapons.
Now prepared, the Volunteers marched to where they boarded a tram (their fares paid for by a considerate George) and were taken to the city centre, where they disembarked at O’Connell Street. Making their way to Liberty Hall, they saw Joseph waiting for them outside. He was, as one of them recalled, “beautifully dressed, having high tan boots, spurs, pince-nez and looked like any British brass hat staff officer.”
It had been a turbulent few days for Joseph as he tried balancing the imminent rebellion with his love life. His fiancée, Grace Gifford, remembered him in high spirits the previous week. Things took a darker turn on the Saturday when Michael Collins visited her at home to deliver, on Joseph’s behalf, a revolver and money, one to fight with and the other to bribe a British soldier if needs be. Grace did not know of which to be more frightened.
When she saw her betrothed the next day, he was “wretched looking”, having skipped the nursing home he was due to check into. Afterwards, Grace could not recall what they had talked about, not even if it was about their wedding, for they were due at the altar the next day, alongside his sister Geraldine and her nuptials in the same church.
Grace and he had been discussing marriage dates for some time. Joseph had suggested Lent which Grace, as a newly converted Catholic, was against. She suggested Easter instead, but Joseph at first resisted on the grounds that “we may be having a revolution then.”
Though Grace and Joseph would not have their wedding until they were in a prison cell, hours before the latter was due to be executed, Geraldine plunged ahead with her own on Easter Sunday. The happy couple cycled to the Imperial Hotel on Sackville (now O’Connell) Street for the night.
The following morning, Geraldine watched from the hotel window with her new husband as uniformed Volunteers advanced up the street and halted in front of the GPO. She recognised her brothers, Joseph and George, the older accompanied by his aide-de-camp Michael Collins, as they and their men set to work constructing barricades.
One Volunteer tried to drive an abandoned tram into another but failed to pick up the necessary speed. Instead, Joseph threw a Larkfield-made bomb into the vehicle and shot it with his pistol from about thirty yards away – “a beautiful shot,” as Geraldine remembered. The shot detonated the bomb, mangling the tram and rendering it a perfect obstacle.
This was the last time Geraldine would see her brother. When she tried talking her way into the GPO, she was told on behalf of Joseph to go home as the building was already full up. It was the same line Joseph gave his father. He may have been willing to risk his own life but he drew a line at certain family members.
Count Plunkett was arrested on the 1st May, two days after the collapse of the Rising. His experiences were described in two short documents: a pencil manuscript in the Count’s hand in the first person, and a typescript in the third, possibly intended for publication.
The Count was in his Upper Fitzwilliam Street residence when a body of soldiers demanded admittance. Despite their lack of a warrant, Plunkett decided that compliance was the wisest course. The men searched the house, breaking open desks and spilling their contents onto the floor, while taking the opportunity to pocket a number of items, including the Count’s prized collection of papal medals.
Also seized were two historical dress-swords which the Count had labelled for loan to the Museum. Plunkett was unaware of these thefts at the time as the only item officially taken was a third ceremonial sword that came with his uniform as Director. The soldiers also tried to get him to admit to having guns in the house but he insisted there was none.
Their search complete, the soldiers arrested Plunkett and took him in an iron-sided van to Dublin Castle. There, he was brought to a small, dirty cell, occupied by twenty others, where they spent the night. His roommates were a mixed bunch, some being “men of education” like himself, others having been arrested for looting. A few were injured, indicating that they had played a part in the recent fighting.
“I cannot” – at this point, the manuscript broke off. The typescript continued the unhappy narration. After a breakfast of canned ‘bully beef’, stale biscuits and tea served in cans, the prisoners were ordered out and marched through the streets to Richmond Barracks, “being subject to insult by the military and the disreputable camp-followers on the way.”
Upon reaching the Barracks, they were again crammed, twenty-seven of them, into a space intended for eleven. As before, their confinements were filthy despite the presence of wounded men who received no special consideration (one fellow prisoner who shared the cell with Plunkett corroborated the crowded squalor of their confinement, and how the prisoners discovered that a pair of boots could make a much-welcomed pillow).
For nearly a week, the prisoners were left to sleep on bare floorboards. Sometimes it was so cold that even the weariest were kept awake through the night. Mealtimes were a drudge of hard biscuits, ‘bully beef’ and black tea, assuaged only when the guards were bribed for food from outside. The Count – or least the document – made the claim that he broke three teeth on a biscuit, but as this is mentioned nowhere else, it was probably untrue.
Things improved somewhat when their treatment was publicised in the newspapers, and the medical staff warned of a fever outbreak should conditions remain as they were. The prisoners were first given rugs to lie on. Sanitary arrangements improved. Food became at least tolerable.
After a fortnight, the Count was finally granted a bed; a hard one, but better than the floorboards. He began receiving visits from his family except his wife, who had been arrested in turn two days after him, a fact he had been previously unaware of.
Twice he was taken to Kilmainham Jail and brought out to the grounds where a court-martial had been convened, apparently for a session, but each time he was sent back, still untried. At least such outings allowed him to see Joseph, George and Jack, also waiting as prisoners. A soldier later said within earshot that all three had been shot. Another clarified a few days later that George and Jack had ‘only’ been sentenced to ten years. All their father could glimpse of the pair was from a window before they were dispatched to Portland Prison in England.
He had already witnessed his eldest son on the day of Joseph’s court-martial, standing in the square of Richmond Barracks, from a first storey window. The two looked at each other for a long while before Joseph was moved on, soon to be before a firing-squad. The Count was weeping as he told this to Geraldine: “Even after the executions, it was not thought right to weep openly, but Pa did, and it was one of the reasons I loved him.”
For all the hardship, Count Plunkett did his best to stay in good humour. A friendly priest, Father Eugene Nevin, visited him in Kilmainham, finding the “dear old man in a small white-washed room, the only furniture of any kind being what looked like a large soap box on which he sat reading the last evening’s Mail.”
Not only could Plunkett greet his visitor with a smile, but he was soon laughing out loud, finding much merriment in the published correspondence between the Bishop of Limerick, Dr Edward O’Dwyer, and General Maxwell. Bishop O’Dwyer had replied to Maxwell’s requests for cooperation with a notably acerbic pen, and Plunkett could at least vicariously enjoy the Bishop’s defiance of the man who had overseen Joseph’s execution two weeks before.
Another source of humour, albeit of a black kind, was a piece of pantomime by him and his fellow prisoners. Plunkett played the role of judge in a mock-trial of Éamon de Valera, awaiting his own court-martial in Kilmainham, who was ‘charged’ with conspiring to become King of the Periwinkles and Emperor of the Muglins.
Everyone present would have known of similar ‘trials’ performed by the imprisoned Young Irelanders after their own failed uprising almost seventy years before. Despite the intent of the charade to relieve some of the tension, de Valera could not help but be unsettled, particularly when the onlookers took the game a little too far by clapping their hands to imitate the sound of a firing squad.
But such diversions could not hold off the reality of the situation indefinitely. When Geraldine was able to visit her father on the 8th May, a week after his arrest, she was shocked by what she saw:
We were taken upstairs to a guardroom where Pa was alone, sitting on the bed. I hardly recognised him. He had been arrested more than a fortnight before and was extremely dirty and miserable and more pleased to see the soap and towel than the food. His beard had practically all fallen off and although he was only sixty-five, he looked eighty-five, a poor tired old man.
Under such conditions, it is unsurprising that his attempts at poetry, composed on scraps of paper and spare envelopes, should have a suitably anguished tone:
The Countess was having it no better. Another woman imprisoned at Mountjoy in the cell next to Josephine’s remembered her being “in a terrible state about her son having been executed, and she used to get awfully lonely and upset at night.” Talking to each other through the wall brought at least a measure of comfort.
Relief came for the pair when they were both notified on the 5th June that they could be released on condition of signing a form, agreeing to deportation to a place in England of their choice. Both signed, with Oxfordshire decided as their destination. They were reunited at Upper Fitzwilliam Street and spent four days there before leaving the country on the 9th, taking their daughter Fiona with them.
As part of their agreement, the couple promised to “abstain from making any speeches or attending or taking part, directly or indirectly, in any political or other demonstration or meeting before leaving Ireland.” They also agreed not to return home without written permission from the Home Secretary or the military authorities.
Exactly why either of them had been arrested at all is unclear. Unlike their sons, they had not been arrested at the scene of an armed uprising. Neither had held leadership positions or any rank among the Irish Volunteers. The lack of a court-martial or trial means that whatever evidence the authorities had against the couple, as well the reasons for detaining two aging non-combatants in the first place, will remain unknown.
The exiles arrived in London on the morning of the 10th before pressing on to Oxford. Count Plunkett attended Mass the following day before getting down to business and writing to the Prime Minister and later the Home Secretary to ask for a meeting (there is no indication that either replied, however).
Always ready to balance politics with his craft, he sent copies of some verse to a number of Irish publications. Hinting at his state of mind was the title of one: ‘O Blessed Gift of Poverty’.
While their Oxford lodgings were a far cry from the luxurious residence on Upper Fitzwilliam Street or the idyllic surroundings of Larkfield, materially the couple could have been worse. A natural entrepreneur, the Countess crafted furniture to sell and, though Geraldine snidely commented on their quality in her memoirs, she made enough to cover the rent and shopping (the latter task falling to Fiona). For home fires, the family made do with old newspapers and lumps of sugar.
Still, the future looked bleak. They were to be dispossessed for an indefinite period, many of their belongings in Dublin had been stolen, and their eldest son was dead with the other two were about to embark on lengthy penal sentences. The National Museum lay over a burnt bridge, the Count having received notice of his suspension as its director. His position would “be determined upon the receipt of a Report from the Military Authorities,” which made any chance of reclamation an unlikely one.
As if to rub salt into the wounds, Count Plunkett, who had chosen Oxford for access to its famous Bodleian Library, had his application for a library ticket refused.