In keeping with the not-yet-uttered adage by Brendan Behan, the first thing on the victors’ agenda following the North Roscommon election was the split.
The two main sources for the private meetings that saw the partnership between Count Plunkett and Arthur Griffith deteriorate almost as soon as it had begun are Kevin O’Shiel’s and William O’Brien’s written accounts. They differ in details, particularly in regards to chronology, but tell more-or-less the same story.
According to O’Shiel, a meeting was held immediately post-election in Bowles’ Hotel, Boyle. For all his canvassing on Plunkett’s behalf, O’Shiel had not been overly impressed upon first seeing his candidate, who appeared to him as a dazed old man, “bowed down and rendered feeble by sorrow and misfortune.”
Plunkett gradually got into the spirit of his own campaign, speaking well when required, but he remained, in O’Shiel’s eyes, a forlorn, pitiful figure. As his campaign was aiming for the sympathy vote on account of his sons’ and his own misfortunes, this was not necessarily a disadvantage.
But, upon success, quite a change came over the 66-year-old Count. Where before he had been weighed down with age and woe, now he straightened into a proud, almost regal, individual, one who “no longer supplicated; he commanded; and it seemed to all that he had made up his mind that he was going to rule whatever organisation was to take shape from his triumph.”
Whatever organisation, indeed. For while Sinn Fein, the Irish Nation League and their fellow travellers had needed the Plunkett name to win North Roscommon, the Count did not necessarily believe that he depended on them in quite the same way.
His supporters got a taste of the new man that evening in Bowles’. There were perhaps thirty to forty people in the room, many from the disparate groups that had thrown their support behind the candidate. The list of names present reads like an assemblage of those who would be at the forefront of the subsequent revolution:
Father Michael O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Joe McGrath, Seán Milroy (who would later break out of Lincoln Prison with Éamon de Valera in 1919), the Independent MP Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly (the editor of the popular Catholic Bulletin), Michael O’Callaghan (later the mayor of Limerick, murdered by the Black and Tans) and Rory O’Connor. O’Shiel was under the impression that O’Connor was the fiancé of the Count’s daughter; in fact, the two were in romantically involved – which may explain his dedication to her father’s cause – but they never got as far as engagement.
The talk quickly came round to the question of absentionism. Now that their man was a bona fide MP, there could be no more ducking the matter. Those of the Irish Nation League were against it, considering such an absolutist stance to be, at best, premature. The Sinn Fein delegates, while naturally in favour of boycotting Westminster, agreed against taking hasty steps. Better, instead, to wait until a more representative gathering could be called before deciding on anything concrete.
The man of the hour had taken the chair but, after opening the meeting with a short call for suggestions, the Count “lapsed into almost complete silence and aloofness – another change, as he had been the most approachable and communicative before.”
When he finally spoke up again, it was to come down firmly on the side of absentionism. He would not, under any circumstances, take his seat in Parliament. Despite the resulting criticism from the League attendees and the calls for caution by the Sinn Féiners, the Count not only remained unmoved but “made it clear…that he would set about immediately to establish a new organisation of his own based on ‘Liberty Clubs’.”
O’Shiel almost certainly jumped the gun here in his narration, for Plunkett would not make his plans for his Liberty Clubs known until further in the year. O’Shiel admitted in his reminiscences that his memories at this point were hazy, but otherwise his account meshes well with O’Brien’s.
In O’Brien’s version, the divisive meeting did not take place until the 15th February, in the Count’s residence on 26 Upper Fitzwilliam Street. Otherwise, the details are very similar to O’Shiel’s, as well as many of the names of those present: Father O’Flanagan, Michael Collins, Rory O’Connor, Laurence Ginnell, J.J. O’Kelly, Michael O’Callaghan and Arthur Griffith.
Here, Plunkett announced his decision early in the session to abstain from his new seat, despite objections from many present, including Griffith, who agreed in principle but did not think his own policy would be popular with the Irish public quite yet. Most of the sunsequent talk revolved around this sticking point, absent the Count, if not in body, then at least in practice: “[he] did not give any particular lead or announce any definite policy himself and on the whole was rather unhelpful as a chairman of a meeting.”
(O’Brien took care to date the event in his memoir but the Count had made his decision on absentionism known before. The news should have come as no surprise to his audience by the time of the 15th. It is more believable that Plunkett was reiterating what he had already said rather than springing anything new on his allies.)
Finally, it was agreed to hold off any further discussion in favour of setting up a committee who would look into the question at a later date. This was merely a stopgap solution but better than nothing. Plunkett and Griffith would each be on this committee to represent their opposing viewpoints, accompanied by J.J. O’Kelly and Seamus O’Doherty (for the Irish Nation League and Sinn Féin respectively) and the trade unionist O’Brien.
O’Brien protested that since he was there in an individual capacity, he could not be called upon to influence the policy of Labour. Given his position as secretary of the Dublin Trades Council, not to mention his importance in general – the noted socialist Peadar O’Donnell described him as the “Lenin of the Labour Movement”– this attempt to abrogate responsibility was not very convincing.
(Privately, O’Brien’s concerns were to keep the Dublin Trades Council aligned with the Labour Party and away from anything overly Nationalist. He was prepared to support the cause of Irish independence as long as it did not mean committing himself or his union.)
The others, however, seemed willing to take O’Brien’s evasion at face value, perhaps content that one neutral party on the committee would at least not act against them.
Ten days later, O’Brien was taking a walk with Collins, Seamus O’Doherty and Michael Staines. O’Brien had met Collins in June 1916 when they had been imprisoned together in Frongoch Camp. Staines had been among those O’Brien had dispatched to North Roscommon to assist the Plunkettite campaign after Kitty O’Doherty, Seamus’ wife, had come to O’Brien, pleading for help (her husband being the election director). O’Brien was thus already on familiar terms with all three.
The Irish Volunteers, they told him, were determined to have any new movement on strictly republican lines, which was not something they felt they could trust Griffith on (Collins presumably kept such opinions to himself when he and Griffith were negotiating the Treaty together in London in late 1921).
A sympathetic listener, O’Brien agreed to help the other men in whatever way he could. So much for neutrality, then.
He also found the time to meet Griffith, who did not mince words: “Griffith said Plunkett knew nothing whatever about present day political circumstances, that it was useless talking to him and that he would be useless as a political leader.”
O’Brien heard him out without interruption. Inured to the quarrels between his fellow trade unionists, he was careful to remain neutral between the warring factions in the new nationalist movement.
The committee met later but failed to agree upon any recommendations on which course their burgeoning movement should take. Griffith pushed an idea of an umbrella council to encompass the number of like-minded groups. Plunkett, on the other hand, insisted on a fresh start with a new organisation altogether. In this, he was backed by Collins and Rory O’Connor.
Such talks ended in stalemates more often than not and only after a good deal of wasted time. One surreal story O’Connor told to a friend was of a woman found dead behind a door, apparently of starvation or cold, at the end of one such meeting, such had been its length.
The committee having fallen short of a solution, there was another meeting on the 2nd March in the Mansion House. Plunkett, Griffith, Father O’Flanagan, Collins, O’Connor and O’Brien were among those present. No one from the Irish Nation League was there, though O’Brien does not say if they had excused themselves or simply not been invited. Once again the agenda was on absentionism, with Griffith adamant that the country was not yet ready for such a step.
It was eventually agreed that the Count would issue a circular. It was to be in his own name, thus leaving him with the responsibility, and addressed to the various public bodies and societies throughout Ireland, inviting them to send delegates to a special conference. There, they would help appoint a national council whose main aim would be securing Ireland’s interests at the Peace Conference that was to be convened in Paris at the end of the War.
As Griffith had been pushing for such a move, this was a victory of sorts for him. In contrast, many in the Irish Volunteers were increasingly dissatisfied, feeling that the initiative they had had since the Rising was slipping back into the hands of political types.
Disclosure and a Concert
For all the gnawing tension behind closed doors (with or without dead women behind them), Plunkett could take grim comfort in how the IPP and its media outlets had clearly designated him as their number one threat. On the 3rd March, the Freeman’s Journal published COUNT PLUNKETT’S AMBITIONS – A DISCLOSURE, with the boast that:
We make public to-day a fact that will be of interest to the supporters of Count Plunkett, and will help to show the Nationalists of the country the characters of some of the men who are now held up to them as patriots of the most exalted and self-sacrificing type.
The promised disclosure was that Plunkett, back in 1914, had applied for the position of Under-Secretary of Ireland upon the retirement of the previous holder. Had the Count succeeded, as the newspaper archly pointed out, “he would have been in duty bound to give orders last April for the suppression of the insurrection.”
If the Count was fazed or embarrassed, he did not show it at a concert in the Mansion House two days later, put on by the Irish-American Alliance. He responded to the enthusiastic welcome from the attendees – many of whom had been forced to wait outside on Dawson Street, such were their numbers – with some fighting talk directed towards the IPP:
People might say what is the moral of the Roscommon election? Well, there are eighty-two constituencies pledged to some form of Home Rule, and the moral of Roscommon is that we are going to take those eighty-two seats.
It was said that in North Roscommon, Plunkett continued, he had had the boys and young men with him, which was something. Also said was how the women had been with him – that too meant a good deal. But he had had the old men with him as well – poor, feeble old men who had crawled across the snow with tears, in their eyes, to whisper in his ear: “I was out in ’67” [the Fenian Rising of 1867].
His only mention of the Freeman’s exposé was an indirect one. He insisted that he did not care to refer, even in the most passing way, to things intended to affect him personally (an encouraging voice called out: “Never mind them”). That such attempts to discredit him were made at all only showed the desperation of his enemies.
With that unpleasant topic out of the way – that he had fallen short of an actual denial was overlooked by an indulgent audience – Plunkett repeated his pledge not to take his seat at Westminster. He ended by asking the audience to pledge themselves, in the name of Ireland, to never rest until the country was cut loose from foreign oppression.
The loud cheers ringing in the Count’s ears as he left showed that once again his public appearance had been a success. The only low-note was when cries of “G-men” broke out, causing a journalist present to be mistaken for a Dublin Castle detective. The unfortunate man was assaulted and thrown out, his notebook torn up and the pieces thrown in the air like confetti.
True to form, the Freeman painted a much more dramatic picture of that evening. According to the newspaper, posters about the city, as well as the notices on sandwich-board-men, had announced ‘Count Plunkett is not a Place-Hunter, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’ and ‘Count Plunkett will explain, Mansion House this (Monday) evening at 8 o’clock’.
In addition, handbills were handed out out, saying ‘Count Plunkett applied to be Under-Secretary for Ireland. He must and will tell you tonight the reason why’ and ‘What would be have done during Easter Week?’
Given such publicity, it is unsurprising that such a large crowd was present that evening. At the end of Plunkett’s speech, a young man wearing a press badge was asked his business. He explained he was from the Freeman’s Journal, going as far as to write his name down if they wanted to verify with his office.
This did little to settle the increasingly hostile group that had gathered, demanding to know why he was not seated at the press table with the rest. His explanation that he had seen no other available chair failed to calm the situation any better than before. He was seized by the coat label, with suggestions made to take him outside, search his pockets and/or throw him in the Liffey.
The main demand was for his notebook (indicating that the crowd thought him a spy rather than a journalist from an unfriendly newspaper). When the pressman tried leaving with his notes still in his coat, he was seized, pushed, shaken, punched and even threatened with sticks. As he paused to pick up his fallen hat, he received a couple of kicks and a punch to jaw.
Some others in the hall interceded on his behalf with cries of “Don’t disgrace the movement” and helped to hustle him away. Despite such efforts, the journalist was safe only after he had been led out of the building through a side-door, though not without a final kick as he departed.
An Announcement in Sligo
Still enjoying his political honeymoon, Count Plunkett visited Sligo on the 17th March, St Patrick’s Day, to receive the freedom of the town. He arrived the day before, when a torchlight procession escorted him to his hotel. That he was booed on the way by a crowd of IPP partisans showed that the country was not entirely behind him or the new nationalism he was pioneering but no matter.
On the evening of the holiday, a large crowd waiting outside the town hall greeted their honoured guest to an outburst of cheers as he arrived in an open carriage. After the freedom was bestowed by the mayor, the Count took the opportunity for another of those rousing speeches of his that were going down so well wherever he went.
He repeated his pledge to not accept anything short of complete independence for Ireland. As for Home Rule, there was not much point in flogging that dead horse anymore. He had a plan, of which the public would hear more of soon, about an assembly to be held in Dublin, where a body would be formed to represent the whole of Ireland and push forward its case at the Paris Peace Conference.
First absentionism, now this assembly – whatever he may have thought of them, the Count was proving himself adept at appropriating Griffith’s ideas.
Following this announcement, a circular in Count Plunkett’s name was sent to all councils for counties, boroughs, urban and rural districts, asking them to nominate delegates for an all-Ireland assembly in a month’s time on the 19th April, the chosen venue being the Mansion House (a locale Plunkett was becoming familiar with).
Addressed from the Count’s house at Upper Fitzwilliam Street, the circular laid out the invitation and the national stakes involved:
Would it be possible for you to immediately call a mass meeting of the people of your County with the object of proclaiming:
Ireland’s right to be represented at the Peace Conference.
To protect against the forced settlement on the part of His Majesty’s Government of the Irish Question.
To consider the urgent questions of taxation and food supply.
If you personally cannot undertake this, would you approach the most likely persons in your County and invite them to do so?
It is a vital necessity that Ireland should affirm its intention of rejecting a scheme involving permanent or temporary partition.
The circular was issued on the 17th March, the day the Count had spoken in Sligo, which gave its receivers a month to consider it. Plunkett’s initiative, however, quickly ran into a brick wall. As most public bodies in Ireland still consisted largely of IPP nominees, the majority proceeded to ignore the circular, sometimes making a display of doing so.
The Limerick County Council voted 7 to 5 against sending delegates. One naysayer said that while everyone had to have a certain amount of feeling for Plunkett, given the loss of his son, he had no right or authority to call such a convention. The Count’s past as a museum director was used against him: “Count Plunkett had received a salary as a Government official, and his circular was nothing but an insult to the Irish people and their representatives.”
Similar sentiments were expressed at a special meeting of the Sligo Board of Guardians which also voted to decline the invitation by 17 to 12. Again, there was sympathy for Plunkett’s bereavement but:
The policy which he has adopted is in danger of sowing dissension and disunion throughout the country. We all know the Irish Parliamentary Party, during the past four years, may not have done everything that the people may have wished.
At the same time we cannot deny that the people of Ireland owe their prosperity and their freedom to the exertions of the Irish Party.
It would thus be ungrateful to spurn the IPP after all it had done. The example of Michael Davitt was raised as one who had tried his hand at physical force but ended up returning to constitutional methods. “If Ireland is to be represented at a Peace Conference I think it should be represented by the Irish Party.”
Others expressed their distaste for the circular in stronger terms. In a meeting of the Kilmallock Rural Council, the proposition that the letter be thrown onto the fire was carried by 13 to 11. At the Arklow Urban Council, the question as to whether to read out the invitation was met with “No, don’t, it is only nonsense,” followed by the suggestion to throw it into the wastebasket and move onto the next order of business.
Not all public bodies refused the invitation, however, with some agreeing to send delegates as requested. Even the ones that voted to reject it often did so by small margins. Plunkett was not without his defenders as well as detractors. At the Ballinasloe Guardians, one member addressed the rumour that the Count had applied for the position of Under-Secretary for Ireland some years past.
If so, why hold that against him when MPs, who drew a salary from the state, were just as much government servants? And, in any case, would he not have been a better man to govern his own country than the ones who did?
The ‘Socialist Part of Ireland’?
Plunkett would soon have to contend with another, considerably more dangerous rumour. As if he did not have enough to be concerned about, the Freeman’s Journal and its sister paper, the Evening Telegraph, gleefully published on the 16th April, three days before his conference was due, an “extraordinary document” that had been sent in “by one of the most influential priests in the Dublin Diocese” who had received it in the mail, as had many other clergymen throughout the country.
Purporting to come from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’, the circular proclaimed its objective to be:
To replace the present chaotic state of society by an organised Commonwealth in Ireland, in which the Land, Railways and all other instruments of production, distribution and exchanges shall be owned and controlled by the whole people.
As standard socialist fare, this was suspect enough in a strongly conservative Ireland but worse was to follow. The document announced that at the forthcoming Plunkett convention, a delegate from the Labour Party would propose a series of resolutions, from the abolition of capitalism and the passing of female suffrage to the transference of schools from clerical management to public control.
As if the last point was not enough to cause the blood of every good Catholic to boil, the document quoted a passage from a 1913 edition of the Irish Worker, a newspaper that every reader would have known was aligned with that epitome of radical politics, James Larkin. The excerpt was especially derogative to the Church, denouncing its clergy as fence-sitters whose attitudes over the past centuries had been “cynical and disgusting to the last degree.”
Straining credulity, the circular ended by calling for Countess Markievicz to represent the women of Ireland, Larkin for the workmen and Count Plunkett for national aspirations, as delegates to the Peace Conference in Paris. The document could not have been better designed to taint Plunkett with the stain of Bolshevism, Larkinism and other heinous forms of social upheaval.
An Apple of Discord
Canon Murphy felt strongly enough to write a letter to the editor of the Freeman that same day, indicating that the editor had been thoughtful enough to show the Canon a copy of the circular prior to publishing. In a response published a page down from the offending document, the Canon urged his fellow priests to be “staunch patriots” who would not be “stampeded by any passing waves of Sinn Fein Larkin lunacy.” After all, they set an example to the rest of the country, being “Ireland’s best political barometer.”
Murphy ended with a pointed question to his colleagues: “How many will support the Plunkett convention?”
Genuine or not, the missive from the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ was having an effect. James McGlinchey, the Dean of St Columbs College, Derry, declined the invitation despite being “heart and soul with the Policy.” He cited the circular as his reason, writing to the Count: “I do not think you would approve of this doctrine or policy: if this is allowed at your convention it will put a very different and very objectionable phase on it.”
At the same time, the Reverend Edward MacCormac, from Longford, asked the Count by letter on whose authority the circular was issued. If Sinn Féin was responsible, then there must be a renunciation of its principles “in which you are so interested.” While Father MacCormac was open to the possibility that the circular had been “manufactured for political purposes, as an attempt to discredit your meeting,” the Reverend needed confirmation, and asked for Plunkett to “kindly oblige me with a reply as soon as possible.”
Not every man of the cloth was so credulous. The Reverend W.P. Hackett from Crescent Green, Limerick, reassured the Count that he did not believe the “crazy document” to be anything but a “red herring” and “an apple of discord flung amongst your supporters.”
‘A Worthy, Practical Catholic’
The idea of Count Plunkett as the victim of a smear job was taken up even by individuals who did not otherwise see eye to eye with him. One reader of the Irish Independent, J.K. O’Byrne, wrote in to say that:
Though a vast number cannot see how the least practical good for Ireland can result from Count Plunkett’s political action, they feel deeply pained that infamous reflections should be cast upon him. Those who are scholars say he is extremely distinguished for his culture and attainments, and those who know him personally assert that he is a worthy, practical Catholic, and a very amendable gentleman.
“Can so much be said of public men generally?” O’Byrne added wryly. There was a certain irony in how the Count could still draw respect from those in disagreement with his newfound hard-line politics while many who were officially on his side were struggling to take him seriously.
Also demonstrating the prejudices which actual socialism would face in trying to take root in Ireland, O’Byrne finished his defence of Plunkett with: “To refer to him in connection with ‘socialism’ is unjust, because its principles, as usually understood, could not possibly be sanctioned by any true Catholic or patriot.”
Also writing to the IrishIndependent were clergymen, the same class of men that the circular was designed – assuming it was fake, which was increasingly the public consensus – to inflame. Under the telling headline, A BOGUS CIRCULAR, the newspaper quoted a number of priests, one of whom did not know how anyone could take the document seriously. As for the IPP, another cleric gave the Party leaders the benefit of the doubt that they knew nothing about the letter.
A layman quoted in the article was less charitable. Described as a “prominent supporter of the Count,” the unnamed individual blamed the circular as “the work of a well-known Dublin politician.”
A similar line was taken by a priest writing to the Independent as ‘One of the Regular Clergy’. According to him, that the “infamous circular is well-known to everyone in Dublin is quite evident from the remarks one hears on all sides.” Regarding the IPP, this ‘regular clergyman’ spoke more in sorrow than in anger: “This said that the Party, which once had the confidence of the Irish people, and were elected to safeguard their interests and procure self-government should have descended to such employment.”
Count Plunkett had weathered the storm. The identity of the ‘Socialist Party of Ireland’ would never be proven, but it had, perhaps fittingly, done the most harm to the Irish Party. That most people would assume it to be the work of the IPP, out to discredit a vexatious rival, showed how low the stock of the former party of Parnell had sunk.
The outcome of Plunkett’s convention – there was no doubt that it was his convention – was yet to be seen. The number of public boards who had appointed delegates remained low but the Plunkett party dismissed this setback.
In a private review of the situation, titled ‘Analysis of Action on Circular by Public Boards’ (either by the Count or one of his allies), it was noted that representatives from organisations such as Sinn Féin, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Cumann na mBan, Irish National Foresters and the National Volunteers, among others, were due to attend.
“On the other hand, what can the Partition Party claim,” the ‘Analysis’ asked scornfully. “The small majority of the Boards, which do not represent the spirit of the country, and they cannot claim a single National Organisation in the country.” The IPP was “defunct and desperate efforts are at present being made to resurrect it.”
How true that was remained to be seen. Also uncertain was what – if the Irish Party was indeed on its last legs – was going to replace it. Some, like Griffith, was sure that that would be Sinn Féin.
Count Plunkett, as it turned out, had other ideas…
Elijah approached the people and said, “How long will you not decide between two choices? If the Lord is the true God, follow him, but if Baal is the true God, follow him!” (1 Kings 18:21)
James J. O’Kelly
‘The Election of the Snows,’ they were to call it in North Roscommon and with good reason. A heavy blizzard had broken out on the Thursday night of the 25th January 1917, accompanied by a strong wind that resulted in snowdrifts of up to ten to twelve feet in places. The snowfall continued all through Friday and showed no signs of abating by Saturday. Nowhere was the snow any less than two feet in depth except for the few spots that the wind had managed to blow clear.
As abominable as it was, the weather was not enough to deter the armies of canvassers who had descended on Roscommon. Three rival candidates standing in a by-election for a prize too good, with stakes too high for any hesitancy or half-measures.
The Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP) had sent sixteen of its Members of Parliament (MPs) and forty organisers – as estimated by a local newspaper – to assist its candidate, Thomas J. Devine. That some of these Party partisans hailed from the opposite ends of the country such as Dublin, Belfast and Cork showed the extent of the support that the heirs of Charles Stewart Parnell could still muster.
For almost thirty years, the late James J. O’Kelly had had his constituency in North Roscommon since his initial election as its MP in 1880. The former Fenian-turned-politician had been thirty-five then, a tender age in Westminster terms, but one that belied his personal qualities. “His firm tread and erect carriage told at once that he was a trained soldier, and his flashing blue eyes, deeply-set below a broad, high forehead,” wrote a panegyrical obituary, “told friend and foe alike that here was a man who must be reckoned with.”
He had stood by Parnell during the ‘Divorce Crisis’ of 1890, a minority position which he had paid for when he lost his seat in 1892 to an anti-Parnellite rival. He regained it three years later and, from then on, he was returned unopposed to the North Roscommon constituency until his death.
Those had been the glory days of the IPP, when it had few rivals but itself, but times had changed, the country had moved on, and the party’s dominance was no longer assured. Usurpers and opportunists were sizing up their chances, and O’Kelly’s death on the 22nd December 1916 was just the opening they needed.
Like the Thane of Cawdor, nothing in O’Kelly’s career, as lengthy and impressive as it was, became him like the leaving of it, as the resulting by-election was to have monumental consequences for the rest of the country.
As the only one of the three candidates to be truly an Independent, Jasper Tully compensated for the lack of party machinery behind him with sheer chutzpah and friendly media coverage. While the IPP workers were working hard to cover every inch of the constituency, Tully announced himself already done and confident of success.
His self-assurance was shared by the Roscommon Herald at least. The newspaper followed his campaign extensively and generously, as well it might, considering how Tully was its editor and proprietor.
The third candidate was not faring too well. That is, if one were to take the Herald at face value. Count George Plunkett was cutting it fine with his arrival in North Roscommon from Dublin on the 1st February, just two days before polling. His first meeting:
…was very small, and the Count proved to be such a wretched speaker that the people who came to hear him walked off in disgust.
The Count proceeded to Boyle, where his efforts were only a little more successful. His main advocate, Father Michael O’Flanagan, was:
…vigorously groaned, and when he turned on some of the old women who were taunting him, was soon proved to be no march for them with the tongue, and he had to retire crest-fallen.
The truth was, the Herald said, that Count Plunkett was a nice old man but hardly suitable material to represent North Roscommon in Westminster. He had been a Tory all his life, to such an extent that his son, Joseph Mary Plunkett – one of those brave patriots executed ten months earlier – had been unable to live under the same roof as his father and moved out.
The Herald was to spare the Count no mercy in its denunciations, introducing him to its readership under a headline that managed to weld his name and his lack of Roscommon roots into a single jibe: A COUNT BUT NOT A COUNT-Y MAN.
The rest of the Herald’s article gave a brief, derisive summary of the subject’s life so far:
The Count is a venerable old man, nearly seventy years of age, with a long flowing white beard. His father was a builder in Rathmines, and he got his title from Pope Leo the Thirteenth. His son was one of the sixteen shot in the Rebellion.
The Count, who was a Government official, was ordered to reside in England by Sir John Maxwell, but the Count has repeatedly declared in the Press that he had nothing to do with the Rebellion.
It was typical of Tully, for whom the best defence was always attack. His world, in the words of one local historian, was a “welter of animosities, hatreds and personal obsessions.” But then, what else could be expected from a man who, upon the death of his wife, redirected her mail with “Not known at this address. Try Hell”?
His personal temperament notwithstanding, Tully had long been a fixture on the midlands political scene. He had begun as an ally of Parnell, for whom he had worked as an organiser in the Land League. The two men had even shared a prison sentence together in Kilmainham Gaol, which had not stopped Tully from siding with Parnell’s opponents in the 1890 ‘Divorce Crisis’, and it was on an anti-Parnellite platform that he was elected MP for Leitrim South from 1892 to 1906.
Never one to stay out of trouble, he was prosecuted in 1886 for printing an intimidatory article in his Herald. He walked when the jury disagreed on the verdict but, by the following year, he was again in court on more charges of intimidation, and yet again in 1900 when he was finally convicted, and received six months of hard labour – his second spell in jail – for publishing an article inciting people to threaten farmers.
Time and prison did nothing to mellow his temperament. He sabotaged his chances for re-election on an IPP basis in 1905, when he brought a court action to overturn the results of the county and district elections, which had not gone his way. As part of the suit, he accused the successful Party candidates of – among other things – bribery, voter fraud and conspiracy to murder (!).
That the court awarded him damages came at the expense of his bridges with his colleagues being well and truly burned. One of those he had accused was Thomas J. Devine, giving the 1917 North Roscommon by-election the feel of the latest round in a long-running feud.
Thomas J. Devine
Compared to Tully’s Trump-esque behaviour and the near absence of the Count, the IPP seemed a model of demure efficiency. The nomination procedure on the 23rd January saw the attendance of a sizeable crowd in Boyle, with the encouraging addition of a number of clergymen.
John J. Hayden, the MP for South Roscommon, announced to the delegates the “unanimous selection” in private of Devine as their chosen candidate. Devine had merited the selection on the basis of his impressive curriculum vitae, having been a county councillor, the Chairman of the Executive of the IPP and the County Vice-President of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Attendees who had been hoping to have an actual say in the choosing process were to be disappointed. The Irish Party had never been a particularly open organisation and it was not about to change.
Hayden next had the task of outlining to the convention attendees the party agenda. With considerable understatement, he told them that “a great many things had occurred since the beginning of the war which must obtain their most careful consideration.”
The first point to consider was an agricultural one: the breaking up of hitherto uncultivated land, with a warning against landowners who tried to tempt tenants into tilling their soil without any intention of selling of them. Having spearheaded one of the great triumphs of Irish politics in the form of the Land War and the resultant improvements for tenant farmers, the Party was loathe to risk such hard-worn gains.
The second point, and the other legacy to safeguard, was “the great question of National Self-Government,” namely Home Rule.
After many years of toil in the debating-hall of Westminster, John Redmond and his cohorts had at last succeeded in passing the Bill for Home Rule into law. Many had been sneering throughout the long wait, doubting it would ever come about.
But these cynics and scoffers had been proven wrong. Home Rule was no longer a domestic concern but an international question, with the attention of not only Irish and British statesmen but those from around the world. There was to be an Imperial Conference next month in London, and here Ireland would be one of the issues on the table for discussion.
Should that question come up, how could Ireland best safeguard her interests? Was it by having one constituency represented one way and another in another way; was it by men responsible only to themselves, or was it by having a strong, disciplined, united party of proved and tried Nationalists representing each and every part of Ireland?
It was a simple, if transparent, tactic: an appeal to unity in the pursuit of a common goal. The question remained, however, as to whether it would be enough.
The Irish Nation League
The opposition, meanwhile, was far from idle themselves. Four days before the IPP Convention, Laurence Ginnell, the Independent MP for North Westmeath, and Father O’Flanagan, the curate for Rossna, had opened the Plunkett campaign with a meeting of their own in Castlerea on the 19th January. The two men quickly became the backbone of the Plunkett campaign, with Ginnell contributing his considerable experience in politics, much of which had been spent in defiance of the establishment, whether Britain’s or the Irish Party’s.
He had been a member of the latter until 1909, when he had resigned over his colleagues’ overly casual attitudes towards party funds. A demand at a closed-doors session to see a statement of finances resulted in him being locked out of the room; in return, he stood as an Independent in North Westmeath the following year and – with sweet vindication – defeated the IPP choice by a large margin.
The Party responded by passing a resolution “excluding all factionists,” although it is unlikely that the target of their ire cared much. Likewise, Ginnell’s win as a lone wolf did not seriously challenge the IPP’s hegemony over the country’s politics.
A rebel ever in search of a cause – one historian described him as an “unpopular and a lonely figure” at Westminster but one whose courage and sincerity was never in doubt– Ginnell found two in the wake of the Easter Rising: post hoc support for the rebellion, and a rekindling of his ire towards former colleagues. As a speaker at an anti-Partition rally in Belfast on the 18th July 1916, he accused the IPP of “trying to throw dust in the people’s eyes” in its alleged consent towards “the proposal for the destruction of Ireland.”
The danger of Partition was an obvious matter of concern in the Ulster counties, and in Derry the Anti-Partition League was formed in July, becoming the Irish Nation League a month later. Its stated intent was to be “thoroughly democratic” and, of particular importance, free from the influence of the IPP.
Originating as a Northern phenomenon, the League achieved some success in the rest of the country, holding its first Dublin meeting on the 10th September in Phoenix Park. A large crowd listened as resolution after resolution was adopted, calling for the immediate release of political prisoners, conscription to be resisted, and full and complete self-government for the country without division. All Irish Party MPs were to resign their seats and make way for fresh elections.
‘A Nation Once Again’ was sung at the end, and a stream of young men left the Park to march along the Quays, singing rebel songs and waving tricolours. Two branches of the League were swiftly formed in Dublin, one each for the North and South sides, followed by another in Limerick. Having found a receptive audience for its message, the League seemed poised to seriously challenge the IPP as the mouthpiece of the country.
As one of its founding members, Ginnell provided his services to the League when he could, such as speaking at a Limerick rally at the beginning of October. His work as an MP was similarly eventful, being suspended several times from the House of Common, one of them being in July for refusing to withdraw his accusations towards the military authorities of a number of misdeeds during the Easter Rising, namely bombarding the Cumann-na-mBan headquarters and mistreating its nurses.
He later apologised and regained access to the Commons on the 17th October. His contrition did not last long, and the Irish Times noted later in the month that he was “beginning to reassert himself, and his questions are once again becoming as difficult, not to say offensive, as of old.”
As if all this was not enough, Ginnell was also busy visiting the barracks in England where the prisoners from the Easter Rising were kept. He brought the inmates cigarettes and papers, and left with their forbidden letters smuggled on his person.
What had him barred from any further visits was his telling the prisoners that they were martyrs for Ireland. Ginnell resorted to signing the prison visitors’ book with the Irish equivalent of his name, ‘Labras MacFingail.’ Convicted of obtaining admission under false pretences, Ginnell was given the choice of either a fine or three weeks’ imprisonment. Possibly inspired by the example of the prisoners, a defiant Ginnell opted for jail.
A day after his conviction was upheld on the 10th October, a meeting by the Irish Nation League in Dublin broke up amongst scenes of chaos, the ostensible point of contention being who should take the chair for the occasion. The one who eventually gained the chair took the opportunity to denounce the leaders of the League as undemocratic and acting against the interests of the country. The ill-fated meeting was adjourned for an indefinite period. The Freeman’s Journal reported this in gloating terms; unsurprisingly so, given that it was a mouthpiece for the IPP.
Kevin O’Shiel, a Tyrone-born barrister, authored The Rise of the Irish Nation League, to help explain the new organisation. The booklet ended with a call for “sincere patriots [to] join it in their thousands,” with a promise that “there is a place in its ranks for every good Irish man and every good Irish girl,” but said good Irishmen and girls suddenly did not seem so inclined to accept the invitation.
The Dublin branches struggled on as best they could, but the League ultimately gained little support in the city or elsewhere in the country outside of its Ulster origins. O’Shiel retrospectively attributed its difficulties to its attempts to “give constitutionalism a final chance” when constitutionalism had had its day: “We in the Nation League were speaking a political language that had become archaic in six months, and we were talking that archaic tongue in an atmosphere that was changing rapidly even while we spoke.”
Factional disputes and disagreements on the best course of action furthered sapped morale. After such a promising start, the League was about to grind to a halt. It is thus unsurprising that Ginnell and the rest of the League should turn their energies to a fresh battleground in North Roscommon.
Ginnell was initially unsure on which one candidate to support. He received a letter from Tully on the 12th January 1917, saying he had been pressed to stand in North Roscommon (that he had needed much pressing is unlikely), and with request for his help. As Tully had been one of his few supporters in his 1910 election to North Westmeath, this was not an appeal he could easily ignore.
The next day, Alice Ginnell travelled to Oxford, to where the Count had been deported after the Rising. She asked him if he too had been approached to stand in the North Roscommon by-election and, if so, had he agreed. The answer was ‘yes’ to both.
Still undecided, Ginnell left London for Ireland on the 17th. When he arrived in Boyle on the night train, two motorcars were waiting for him, one from Tully and the other from Father Michael O’Flanagan.
Ginnell chose to go in Tully’s but then had a “very unsatisfactory interview” with his old ally. In a petty display of power, Tully had Ginnell refused admittance to a hotel that the candidate owned, forcing the MP to stay the night in a private house. A second interview two days later went no better. In her reminisces, Alice Ginnell gives no reason for the suddenly strained relationship between the two men, saying only that her husband was extremely upset at being unable to repay his former friend for his past services.
Whatever the cause, Ginnell now committed himself to the Count. He would soon display his prowess as a campaigner, walking ten miles through the cutting weather from Boyle to Elphin to address a crowd there. In contrast, a group of young pro-Plunkettites left Roscommon town by motorcar in an attempt to clear a path with shovels, but were forced to turn back. Experience took no second place to youth, it seemed.
Father Michael O’Flanagan
Tully did not waste time mourning the loss of his friendship with Ginnell. When the Roscommon Herald announced Plunkett’s candidacy, it did so almost in passing:
The Count is standing for North Roscommon as the nominee of the recently formed place-hunting Irish Nation League, which is usually called the “League of the Seven Attorneys,” as it is run by seven Attorneys in the North of Ireland who were disappointed in getting places from the last Government.
(The use of the sobriquet ‘League of the Seven Attorneys’ to mock the Irish Nation League – due to the abundance of attorneys and barristers like O’Shiel in its ranks – was not original to the Herald. O’Shiel attributed an otherwise obscure Donegal-based newspaper for the nickname, which was quickly taken up by others.)
Significantly, Sinn Féin was nowhere mentioned. At the time it was less of a coherent entity and more, as O’Shiel described, the “extremely variegated and anti-Irish Party Nationalism.” Instead, O’Shiel was in no doubt that the Plunkett campaign originated from Father O’Flanagan: “That remarkable, brilliant and most eloquent young man.”
O’Flanagan’s energy and indefatigability made him almost a one-man movement, inspiring the Irish Times – which was far from sympathetic to the Plunkett cause in general – to describe him in almost Biblical terms:
For twelve days and nights he was up and down the constituency, going like a whirlwind and talking in impassioned language to the people at every village and street corner and cross-roads where he could get people to listen to him.
Having delivered the burial service at the iconic public funeral for Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa in 1915, O’Flanagan was an experienced performer. He was shrewd enough to base his message in North Roscommon on the then overriding concern to all: the fear that conscription into the British Army for its war in Europe would be imposed on Ireland.
Conscription, so O’Flanagan said, would have been implemented already had it not been for the Rising. As one of the Count’s sons had been executed and another two imprisoned for their roles in that rebellion, ergo, a vote for the Count was a blow against conscription.
How one would lead to the other was not explained in any great detail. After all, conscription was still an issue and it was not as if Plunkett was proposing another uprising. But then, few political messages have suffered from oversimplification.
Whatever his deficiencies as an analyst, O’Flanagan more than made up for them with his gift for imagery. It was easier for the young men, so he told his rapt audiences, to carry their father to the polls to vote for Plunkett than it would be for them to serve as conscripts in France. The potential of youth to make a difference and the bridging of generations for a worthy cause were favoured themes of O’Flanagan’s, to which he would return.
The padre was also unafraid to get down into the mire with an opponent. He responded at one meeting to Tully’s printed mockeries with some fighting words of his own. Tully, he said, did not love his country. Tully had always been a trimmer and was not fit to clean the Count’s shoes (cheers). As for the Count, he did not get his title from England but from the Pope (more cheers). O’Flanagan appealed to every man, woman and child in the parish to assist Count Plunkett, a cultured Irish Catholic, and thus honour the memory of the dead who died for Ireland (cheers again) – a clear reference to those of Easter Week. The Plunkett campaign was finding that a connection to the Rising was a political boon that its rivals could not hope to duplicate.
The Freeman’s Journal
The nominations for the three candidates in Boyle on the 26th January made the three-way nature of the contest official. The Freeman’s Journal stressed the unanimous selection of Devine at the IPP convention and praised him as a “man of proved record in the National fight,” by which he meant the Home Rule movement.
For Tully, the paper had nothing but scorn, pointing out that he could have put himself forward at the same convention like the others but he did not: “Probably because he knew he would not be selected.” His running as an Independent, therefore, could “only be regarded as a wanton attempt to divide the constitutional forces in the consistency.”
For Plunkett, the Freeman showed a certain grudging respect, acknowledging that his candidacy was a “direct challenge to the policy of the Irish Party, and is, therefore, an issue clear and well-defined.” Unlike Tully’s Roscommon Herald, the Freeman refrained from a direct attack on the Count, at least at first.
Instead, it waxed lyrically about the record of the late James J. O’Kelly: “one of the old Fenian Guard who had kept fully the spirit of Ireland alive in the darkest and most evil days” until his conversion to “the great policy of constitutionalism which Parnell had undertaken.”
O’Kelly had proceeded to traverse the length and width of Roscommon. He had done so before as a revolutionary, drawing converts to the Fenian cause, but upon his metanoia, he made instead followers to the path of parliamentarism. This was a course which would, no doubt, settle for good the pressing question of Irish self-rule. The candidacy of Count Plunkett was a divergence from this course, one that could only set back the gains made already.
The Freeman made a plea for consistency: “The men who were represented so faithfully and so long by James O’Kelly will not consent to be represented by anyone except a man who will honestly and loyally follow in his footsteps” – a man like Devine, in other words.
In contrast to such a heritage, Plunkett did not seem to represent much. Until his deportation to England for the Rising – something the newspaper informed its readers he seemed to have had no sympathy for – he had been a Government official, making him an unlikely Sinn Feiner. Attempting to strike a tone of judicious concern, the Freeman concluded:
It is certainly much to be hoped that the doubt which now exists will be cleared up without delay, for, in the present circumstances, the Count would appear to stand for nothing and nobody but himself.
So what *did* Plunkett stand for? By himself, very little, as readily admitted by many of his supporters in the years afterwards, with one remarking that “we youngsters…did not care what the Count did so long as he was elected.” Another thought at the time that the Count did not need a political platform of his own, as simply being the father of an Easter Rising martyr would be sufficient.
And there lay the secret of Plunkett’s appeal. In dismissing him as an empty vessel, the Freeman and other critics were entirely missing the point. The candidate was not intended to be himself but as a cup for others to pour into.
The IPP’s adherents would attempt further to hammer away at Count Plunkett’s radical credentials. The Freeman’s Journal scorned Tully’s campaign tactics as abusive and crude – “in thoroughly characteristic fashion” for him – but the IPP, when push came to shove, proved to be not so above it all, after all.
John Hayden, the South Roscommon MP, told a rally in Boyle that he had in his pocket a letter:
…written by Count Plunkett saying he was in total ignorance of what was taking place [during the Rising], and that he spent Easter Week taking charge and looking after the property of the Government in the Dublin Museum of which he had charge. He apologies for the conduct of his sons in that affair, because, he says, they were mere boys.
Plunkett’s policy was not in keeping with the rebels of Easter Week and thus not in line with that of Sinn Féin. What then was his policy? As for Tully, he stood only for himself, and without a party or wider movement behind him, what could he hope to achieve alone?
Hayden closed his speech with an exhortation to “stand by the policy of Parnell and James O’Kelly, to stand by a united and disciplined Irish Party…and thus show that no policy of any sort or kind, whether it be Sinn Fein, Irish Nation League or Tullyism will be tolerated in opposition to a pledge-bound Irish Party.” Such language spoke much about the mindset of the IPP and how it still saw itself as the only viable option for the nationalist vote.
The Roscommon Messenger sided with Devine. While it had not previously covered the election in any great detail, its edition for the 3rd February – timed for the day of the vote – made its allegiance explicit with a list of reasons to support the candidate:
He was the unanimous choice of the IPP Convention, or the “Convention of the people,” as the newspaper phrased it.
He supported the constitutional movement of Parnell, Michael Davitt and James O’Kelly, “which had proven effective for the winning of every reform demanded by the Irish Party.”
Repeating much of what the IPP machine had already said, the Messenger dismissed Tully as representing no party and no politics. Plunkett had been drawing “a Government salary for looking after old fossils, bones and stuffed birds in the Dublin Museum.” He would find North Roscommon, the paper warned, a tougher prospect to deal with than his dead birds and antiquarian knick-knacks.
Another local newspaper, the Roscommon Journal, was not so obliging, and took a gloating pleasure in recording the mishaps of F.E. Meehan. The MP for North Leitrim was speaking on behalf of Devine in Loughglynn when he was challenged to answer one question.
When Meehan consented to do so, he was asked: “How many recruitment speeches did you make on recruiting platforms?”
“Oh, that has nothing to do with the election,” Meehan replied.
“Oh, yes, it has,” said his challenger from the crowd. With the looming threat of conscription, anything to do with the British Army was now treated as the mark of Cain. When Meehan declined to answer any further, his audience, according to the Journal with a frisson of schadenfreude, “melted away from him and he was left a bird alone in the snow.”
The Roscommon Journal had already decided to align itself with Tully. It joined the Herald in its generous coverage of the man, including the number of notable endorsements he had earned, such as Father Monaghan. The priest appealed to the voters of Fairymount district to support the Independent candidate, citing his previous record of fighting against high taxation while on Roscommon County Council.
The Boyle Town Commissioners also came out in support, describing Tully, who happened to be their chairman, as a “devoted and worthy man…one whose effort has been to improve the condition of the country, and of the people amongst whom he lives.” Tully may not have had a party or policy to call his own but he did at least know how to use his local contacts.
He decided to make up for lost canvassing time by addressing two large meetings, one after another, in Boyle on the 27th January. The first was an open-air event in the town centre, notable mainly for the arrival of a small band of disrupters from Sligo who were quickly driven away. Tully and his listeners then withdrew inside a hall for his second hearing.
Never short of bravado, he told his listeners that his canvassing was already done (not that he had been doing too much of it to begin with). Everybody in the constituency knew him and everything that could be said for or against him. The IPP had sent sixteen MPs and forty organisers against him, but where were they now? All snowed under, unable to do anything but warm their toes at hotel fires. Just as Napoleon could fight everything but the snow, so was the sixteen horse power MP machine of John Redmond helpless against the elements.
An unwise heckler felt the edge of Tully’s tongue: “I hope, Mr Rafferty, you will try to restrain yourself. You are now trying to pose as a Sinn Feiner, while your brother is out in the trenches fighting for England.”
To general laughter, he proceeded to taunt the “little sham of Sinn Feiners” in the Plunkett camp, painting a lurid picture of them kissing and hugging the Sherwood Foresters who had pacified the country after the Rising. “These twopenny, halfpenny, tin-whistlers were great fighters now with their mouths,” he sneered.
Contrary to what they may have heard, Tully told his audience, the Count had not been put forward by Sinn Féin. After all, Sinn Féin did not believe in Parliamentary elections, and if a real Sinn Féiner was to be elected, he would not sit, so why would one be running in the first place? That left just him, a local boy, the only one who could hope to do a particle of good for North Roscommon.
Seconding Tully on the platform was M.J. Judge. As a member of the Irish Volunteers (one of the very few to support a candidate other than Plunkett), that alone gave him some weight. Judge quickly picked up Tully’s thread: it was not Sinn Féin but the ‘League of the Seven Attorneys’ who were behind the Plunkett campaign. Each of these said attorneys was only interested in obtaining an easy job in the government, and would use Roscommon as a bargaining chip towards this.
Tully announced himself happy to step down in favour of a “real Sinn Feiner” but not for a man who, before becoming a government servant, was:
…always known in Dublin as an amiable old Whig. He is now a very feeble old man, and a delicate man. It is really the Dublin people who should take him up for Parliament, if he is anxious for a seat, but I do not believe he knows anything about North Roscommon except seeing it on the map.
Tully cited Eoin MacNeill as an example of a ‘real Sinn Feiner” for whom he would be willing to move aside. As the imprisoned Chief of Staff to the Irish Volunteers was unlikely to be in Roscommon anytime soon, Tully could happily make such empty promises.
It was notable that Tully made the point of criticising those purporting to be of Sinn Féin rather than the party itself, an indication in itself of the direction in the public mood. The first time the name of Sinn Féin was raised in connection with the election was the report by the Roscommon Herald in the first week of January 1917 about rumours in local Sinn Féin circles of running someone for the election.
While this possible candidate remained anonymous, the paper did drop hints as to his identity:
The gentleman’s name is one of the most important – if not the most important of the leaders of the Irish Volunteer movement. He is now undergoing penal servitude in England as a result of trial and sentence by courtmartial in Dublin.
Although this gentleman’s name would never be confirmed, the clues would point towards it being Eoin MacNeill. There was also a mention of efforts to entice Dr Michael Davitt, son and namesake of the famed Land League founder, to stand but other than his refusal upon his mother’s objections, no further details were given.
The following week’s edition of the Herald told of how a “Mr O’Doherty of Dublin” had been in Boyle and other parts of North Roscommon, bearing a petition to invite Count Plunkett to stand in the constituency for Sinn Féin.
Despite the novelty of Sinn Féin running for a parliament whose authority it repudiated, interest in the petition was mostly limited to its possible short-term consequences. There was fear that the petition would bring down the wrath of the authorities in the form of wholesale arrests. Sympathisers of Sinn Féin argued instead that it would assist in freeing the prisoners from the Rising.
The “Mr. O’Doherty of Dublin” was Seamus O’Doherty, actually from Derry. He would become the director of elections for Count Plunkett, at least in name, for Father O’Flanagan seems to have been that in effect. Indeed, the priest and O’Doherty wrote the Count’s election address in the latter’s house, according to his wife, Kitty.
Seamus had first obtained from the Count assurance that he stood on the platform of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. Given that the Count had lost a son on account of the Rising, with two others imprisoned over it, he was hardly going to refute their efforts.
It is unknown if O’Doherty took the time to inform Plunkett of his role as acting head of the reorganised Supreme Council of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), the Count himself having been sworn into the IRB a few weeks before the Rising. Despite O’Doherty’s status, the rest of the Council did not approve of his forays into electoral politics and refused the Plunkett campaign access to their funds. Regardless of this setback, O’Doherty was still able to contact IRB cells in Roscommon and persuade them to assist him in the election.
The journalist J.J. O’Kelly (also known by his penname ‘Sceilg’) gave his own account of the baby steps of the Plunkett-Sinn Féin campaign. He had spoken at a Sinn Féin conference in North Roscommon, organised by – who else? – Father O’Flanagan. The name of Dr Michael Davitt had been put forward and approved by the majority of those present. O’Kelly had returned to his office in O’Connell Street, Dublin, where he was followed by O’Flanagan. Davitt had declined the offer, so O’Flanagan proposed another candidate.
As editor of the Catholic Bulletin, an officer in the Gaelic League and a participant in the Irish National Aid and Volunteer Dependants’ Fund, O’Kelly was a man of some influence. But it was the priest – according to O’Kelly – who decided on Plunkett as their replacement.
O’Kelly knew the Count already, both having served on the committee for the Society of the Preservation of the Irish Language, and had visited his Dublin house many times in the past.O’Kelly wrote that same evening to his old friend in Oxford with the offer to stand (a letter from O’Kelly discussing the matter would date this to early January).
This would clash somewhat with Kitty O’Doherty’s version, in which it was her husband who did the bulk of the preliminary work. Whoever was responsible, Sinn Féin now had their man.
That Sinn Féin would become synonymous with the Plunkett campaign was surprising to many. There was, after all, not much to Sinn Féin at the time. As a party, it was “practically non-existent,” in the opinion of one Plunkettite canvasser, to the point of it not being mentioned in any of the campaign speeches.
O’Shiel, took a similarly dim view of Sinn Féin, describing it as being defined less by what it was and more by what it was not: “the then extremely variegated and anti-Irish Party Nationalism.”
Nonetheless, according to O’Doherty, his petition was able to attract the signatures of “hundreds of prominent people.” This may be something of an exaggeration, given how newspapers like the Freeman’s Journal and the Roscommon Herald – both usually so attuned to potential threats to their respective candidates – failed to mention the petition in anything more than passing terms.
Regardless, the petition was enough to kick-start the Plunkettite drive. It made no mention of the Rising – somewhat surprisingly, given its ex post facto popularity – or any specific Sinn Féin policies, preferring instead to keep things simple:
We declare our adhesion to the doctrine of Ireland a Nation which has been handed down to us by our fathers. We believe that the Irish Nation has as much right to freedom as any other nation. The fact that the Great Powers at present warring on the continent of Europe have again and again appealed to this principle of Nationality is clear proof of its potential moral power.
We believe that at the present moment Ireland has a magnificent chance of reaching the goal of freedom by merely insisting on her National claims and making them known throughout the world. In this way we can secure a hearing before the Nations when they assemble at the end of the war to re-build civilisation upon its new basis.
It was, in O’Shiel’s unromantic opinion, an “innocuous enough if pathetically hopeful statement, and, as a declaration of policy, extremely vague and shadowy.”
An issue that the petition neglected to touch upon was that of abstentionism. It was a keystone to Sinn Féin’s policy but not one that the rest of the Count’s supporters – the majority of them, in O’Shiel’s estimation – were willing to accept, at least not yet. Plunkett himself had said nothing on the issue, but then, he had said nothing about anything beyond agreeing to stand. Not that anyone seemed overly concerned with clarifying the matter with him. It was a question best left unasked in the meantime for the sake of everyone getting along.
O’Shiel travelled to Roscommon on the 31st January, more on behalf of the Irish Nation League than Sinn Féin. He reached Boyle after an extremely cold and uncomfortable journey, and stayed in the only hotel that was open to a Plunkettite (lodgings, as well as newspapers, could be used as weapons of politics). The next day, he travelled by motorcar to Carrick-on-Shannon, where the Count was due to come by train from Dublin.
This journey was as arduous as the one before, the driver having to occasionally dig a way through the snowdrifts on the road with a shovel. Despite the conditions, O’Shiel was impressed to see the number of people also making their way to the station. Some of these fellow travellers were wearing the newly fashionable colours of green, white and orange in buttonholes, or carrying flags of the same tricolour.
O’Shiel arrived to join the large and enthusiastic crowd that greeted Count Plunkett as he stepped off the train, accompanied by one of his daughters, Seamus O’Doherty and two priests. The crowd was largely a youthful one, which surprised O’Shiel, accustomed as he was to the predominance of the middle-aged and elderly in political meetings. Young women as well as lads were in attendance, an oddity for the times, and indicative of the new feeling that was sweeping the country.
Many of these young attendees were more than just passive observers. Groups of them paraded the streets on a nightly basis, singing such rousing doggerel such as:
Even the disagreeable weather could be utilised as another campaign tool, with the omnipresent snowfall providing a canvass for campaign slogans to be traced then filled in with ash. This created such a stark impression that passers-by could not help but read such exhortations like:
For many patriotically-minded youths, the election was a welcome relief from the listlessness around them. Roscommon had been entirely unprepared for the Rising, and when nothing of note had happened during Easter Week, the county seemed doomed to remain a revolutionary backwater.
Twenty-two year old Patrick Mullooly was sitting by the fire with some friends when someone came in to tell them that Father O’Flanagan was in the local hall at Kiltrustan. They went there to find a guest speaker regaling the audience with tales of the fighting during Easter Week.
When the newcomer was done, O’Flanagan leapt on stage to point at the Banner of St Patrick hanging on the wall. The priest pointed at the rallying cry on the foot of the flag – “Freedom comes from God’s right hand and needs a godly train and righteous men must make our land a Nation Once Again” – and said in a near-shout: “If you do not believe in those words, tear down that banner of St Patrick and trample on it!”
Nothing could have been better calculated to bring about the desired response. As Mullooly remembered it:
This evoked tremendous enthusiasm, everyone springing to their feet and cheering loudly and as the young men went home over the hills that night, you could hear their defiant cheers echoing from hill to hill.
What made such efforts so notable – besides anyone choosing to stay outdoors after dark in such temperatures at all – was that most of these young men would not be able to contribute a vote and women of any age not all. Universal suffrage would not come into effect in Ireland until the following year in the 1918 general election.
Yet still they turned out to help at almost every opportunity. Father O’Flanagan and O’Shiel in particular had reason to be grateful when their motorcar was stuck in a windscreen-high snowdrift and soon dug out by a group of young men at hand from the local Irish Volunteers.
The Irish Volunteers
The role played by the Volunteers was another innovation, though there had been doubt that they would be involved at all. The trade unionist William O’Brien was discussing the state of the country with Arthur Griffith when the subject of the ongoing by-election came up. O’Brien remembered how a vacancy had occurred in the West Cork constituency, near the end of the previous year. The Volunteers there had opposed the running of a Republican candidate, resulting in a win by the IPP. In light of that example, O’Brien told Griffith that he doubted that the Volunteers would be any more accommodating in North Roscommon.
He would be proved wrong. Young men from the Irish Volunteers became a familiar sight during the election. They canvassed voters, collected funds and stood on guard at meetings, not to mention the simple but essential task of shovelling snow off the roads, lest potential voters be blocked from their civic right.
It was not all for the sake of democracy. Electioneering duties also provided a convenient cover for organising the Volunteers in areas that had up to then been neglected. One Volunteer from Longford would remember such work as very much an ad hoc, albeit productive, one, with him travelling through North Roscommon with others in motorcars, arranging meetings and setting up impromptu units whenever they had the chance.
Another worker, Seán Leavy, only joined the Volunteers when he began assisting in the Plunkett campaign. He was inducted in with a minimal of fuss, with no oaths taken or ceremony stood on, just a membership card provided and the duty of organising a company in Leavy’s home parish of Scramogue, Roscommon.
Leavy not only succeeded in Scramogue but helped set up similar companies in Strokestown, Cloonfree, Carnistra, Curraghroe, Tarmonbarry, Kilbrustan and Northyard, as well as smaller units in Slatta, Kilglass and Rooskey. The companies were initially small but they would provide bases from which to work on in the near future.
There is no indication that there was any central leadership in the Volunteers directing operations. Members joined in, as individuals or in groups, as the mood took them, and the mood was a heady one indeed.
The experiences of Michael Staines were not untypical. Freshly released from Frognoch Camp for his part in the Rising, Staines obtained a position in the National Aid Association. As part of this, he toured the country to investigate claims for assistance from the dependants of those killed on the Easter Week, while taking the opportunity to help reorganise Volunteer companies as he found them.
On the suggestion of his friend, Seamus O’Doherty (he of the petition), he dropped by Roscommon to assist in the Plunkett campaign, one of his roles being to meet Michael Judge. Judge was one of the few Volunteers not to side with the Plunkett, instead sharing a platform with his chosen candidate, Jaspar Tully. Staines was tasked with persuading Judge to withdraw from helping Tully any further but such efforts floundered when the other man failed to arrive for their agreed appointment.
He had more success convincing some others, upon a brief return to Dublin, to come and assist in Roscommon. Staines was to be one of the two pro-Plunkett workers in the village of Frenchpark on polling day, the other being a certain Michael Collins. It was the first time the two of them met, making the election, amongst other things, a valuable time to make acquaintances and establish contacts.
Then fire from the Lord came down and burned the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the ground around the altar. It also dried up the water in the ditch. When all the people saw this, they fell down to the ground, crying. (1 Kings 18:38-39)
The tallying of the votes began at 10 am on the Saturday of the 3rd February, to be finished by noon and announced to a waiting crowd. Attendance was a heroic feat in itself. Fences along the public roads and through fields were smothered under blankets of snow, and any landmarks that could have provided direction had been covered from sight. On a number of occasions, intrepid travellers who had attempted to bypass the blocked roads by striking out over the fields were almost swallowed up by snow-obscured drains.
Despite such inclement conditions, supporters of both Devine and Plunkett announced themselves confident of success. Tully was more restrained for once, merely expressing the opinion that he had done “very well.” The Freeman’s Journal had already identified the contest as between Devine and the Count, relegating Tully to the status of an irrelevance. On both accounts, the IPP organ would prove prescient.
When it came to deciding the contest, it turned out that the results, as they were read out that Monday, were not even close:
Count George Plunkett – 3,022
Thomas J. Devine – 1,708
Jaspar Tully – 687
It was not so much a win and a loss as a triumph by one and crushing defeats for the others. None could have been more surprised than the winner. For all the fighting talk, no one in the Plunkett camp – other than the irrepressible Father O’Flanagan – had really thought they had a chance of actually winning.
The victor began by proposing a vote of thanks to the election officials for carrying out their duties in a most admirable manner. He was equally gracious to his two opponents, towards which he held no ill will. The election had tested the integrity of Irish democracy. After all, a Dubliner had just been elected by Roscommon men – perfect evidence of the firmness, fairness and justice of the proceedings. As for North Roscommon, if it had been sleeping before, it was awake now at last.
With considerable emotion, the beaten Devine spoke next. He seconded the vote of thanks to the officials. The other candidates and he were on the best of terms, and it was his wish that no bitterness remained. While otherwise a fair loser, Devine did express his view that his side had been handicapped but declined to elaborate.
In keeping with his past conduct, Tully gave the most verbose speech out of the three. Despite finding himself at the bottom of the poll, he professed to be delighted at the result as it meant the defeat of the Party machine, his votes totalling with the Count’s as the voice of North Roscommon defying the IPP.
It is doubtful that Plunkett really needed Tully’s share of the votes in order to send such a message. It might also be marvelled at the ease in which Tully switched from Plunkett as the target of his insults to the stricken IPP, mocking John Redmond, as “weak” and “wretched.”
The Roscommon Herald followed the direction of its owner. Two cartoons printed side by side caricatured the IPP’s mishaps, the first showing the IPP in the form of a crocodile arriving at Roscommon with a Union Jack waving in its tail, the other with the Party as a whimpering dog being given the boot.
The Post-Mortem by the Irish Times
The Irish Times identified the victor’s success as being due to a combination of conscription fears, which Father O’Flanagan had relentlessly played on, and the appeal to people’s sentiments concerning the Rising, which Plunkett undoubtedly had a claim to by his family’s involvement alone.
In contrast, the once-mighty, now flaccid election machine of the IPP could barely compete, particularly when compared to the impassioned speeches and tireless work done by Father O’Flanagan. But he was not the only man of the cloth swayed to new ways, with the Irish Times noting the “curious change in the attitude of the younger clergy.”
While the IPP convention where Devine was nominated had been attended by a large number of priests, these tended to be mature in years. Their younger colleagues, on the other hand, were notable by their absence. Father O’Flanagan’s entry into the Plunkett campaign – at least openly so, for it is clear that the curate was there from the start – was followed by several other clerics of similar age. From there, said the Irish Times with the benefit of hindsight, “it merely became a question of Count Plunkett’s majority.”
In the event of a general election, the Irish Times predicted that the IPP would be “swept out of three-fourths of their seats in rural Ireland.” The newspaper could scarcely hide its horror at such a possibility but felt compelled to state it all the same.
The Post-Mortem by Father O’Flanagan
While at polar opposite ends politically, Father O’Flanagan’s pen-portrait of the election was broadly in agreement with the Irish Times’. Writing a month afterwards in an article for the Catholic Bulletin (no doubt with the encouragement of its editor, J.J. O’Kelly), O’Flanagan told of meeting a six year-old boy as the former was walking down the empty streets of Strokestown one morning. As the priest passed by, the boy looked up from where he was playing in the snow and called out: “Up Plunkett!”
When O’Flanagan asked what the other was doing, the lad replied: “Making graves.”
Pointing to the two little mounds he had made in the snow, he explained: “That’s Tully and that’s Devine.”
When O’Flanagan pointed out that both of those two names were still alive, the boy clarified: “No, but we’re pretending they’re dead,” before turning to resume in his play.
Another anecdote concerned the elderly. One octogenarian refused to avail of the motorcar provided by the Plunkettites to take him to the polling booth. Instead, he waited for a vehicle from the Devine camp as he felt entitled to a trip at the IPP’s expense. As he left the booth, having completed his democratic duty, the old timer finally gave vent with a cheer for Plunkett (and was left to walk back home).
To O’Flanagan, the secret behind the North Roscommon win was a simple but profound one: “The enthusiasm of the young was wonderful, but the enthusiasm of the old was more wonderful still.”
Count George Plunkett
Perhaps the final word should go the Inspector-General of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Trained to follow the happenings throughout the country, the policeman eschewed the lengthy analysis of the Irish Times and the folksy myth-making of Father O’Flanagan. Instead, he kept his report to Dublin Castle short and crisp:
It is reported that Count Plunkett’s supporters appeared to work much harder than those of the other candidates, but one of the principal features of the election is that many persons, including a number of priests, who had not hitherto shown Sinn Fein sympathies, identified themselves on this occasion with the Sinn Feiners.
At the end of the day, the diverse collection of renegades, radicals and revolutionaries who rallied behind the Plunkett banner had wanted to win more than their opponents. In addition, they had been able to convert the ordinary mass of voters to their brand of nationalism, one that seemed fresher and more appetising than the stale, Home Rule-flavoured kind peddled by the Irish Party for so – for too? – long.
There could only have been one result. But, as wonderful as it might have been, the question was now what the victor would do with it. As for the groups who had trudged through the snow on his behalf – Sinn Féin, the Irish Nation League, the Irish Volunteers, even the IRB – the Count had given no indication as to where he stood with any of them.
Did he share their beliefs or follow their ideals? Did he agree with one in particular over the others? Was this win to be a once-off, a protest vote and nothing more? The first of more to come? Did the new MP have a plan or was he just taking things as they came?
All that was known for sure was that Count George Plunkett had lost a son in the Rising and beaten the Irish Party. For now, in the giddy aftermath of the Election of the Snows, that was enough.
The annual ceilidhe organised in Dundalk by the local Fianna Fáil cumann branch, on the 13th May 1935, was a prominent enough event to merit the attendance of two of the party’s heavyweights: Vivion de Valera, son of the Taoiseach, and the Minister of Defence, Frank Aiken. When the latter prepared to speak, he was interrupted by a group of young men with cries of “Up the Republic!”, “Release the prisoners!”, and others of a distinctly Republican nature.
The Gardaí in attendance moved to eject the hecklers. Aiken, not one to back down from a fight, interceded with the police to “leave the boys alone” and let him have a word with them. With the attention back on him, the Minister addressed the youths and the hall in general.
Fianna Fáil, he said, had been elected by 99.9% of Republicans to lead the national fight and, with the help of God, they would do so. Quite how Aiken had come to that precise percentage was unclear but, in any case, no one in the hall queried him.
The party, Aiken continued, aimed to govern the country with the least possible force but they were nonetheless obliged to protect the public from those who were obstructing the elected government.
‘Up Tom Barry!’
A voice called out: “We must fight!” Aiken replied that every member of the current Cabinet had been fighting for the Republic all their lives. Those now talking about fighting were those who only did so when there was no war on. Unconvinced, the young men resumed their heckling with “Remember the seventy-seven executions!” and “Up Tom Barry!”
If they were trying to impress or intimidate the Minister with a reference to his former comrade in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), then they had misjudged their man. Aiken initially tried to brush off the reminder by saying he did not wish to talk about Barry but, with the slogan being repeated, he had enough, retorting that those who were now shouting must not know anything about their idol. When the IRA was fighting and its members being executed, Aiken continued, Barry had been running around the country, trying to make peace.
With this somewhat cryptic putdown, the tide in the hall turned in the favour of the Minister. Counter-cries of “Up Dev!” were heard, prompting cheers from the audience. Beaten, but with their point already made, the hecklers departed from the hall, where the ceilidhe finally proceeded.
Tom Barry on Trial
It took Barry several weeks to respond. He had, after all, the pressing concern of a trial, accused as he was of breaking into a house in Co. Cork with several others to assault a member of the local Blueshirts, John E. Barry (presumably no relation), and his wife in the November of the previous year.
The only one of the defendants at the hearing who was prepared to act as his own counsel, Barry showed that he had lost none of the pugnaciousness that had marked him out during his days as a guerrilla commander. The testimony of Mr. and Mrs. Barry, the two main witnesses against him, he declared, were contradictory and, in any case, they were the “heads of the Imperialist Party in the district.”
The hearing done, Barry was returned for trial. As he left the court for Cork Jail under police and military escort, he was cheered by a waiting crowd and then again as he was recognised passing through the area. It had been over a decade since the War of Independence but his renown as one of its most successful IRA leaders remained undimmed.
In the meantime, Father Thomas F. Duggan had intervened on Barry’s behalf. He had been closely acquainted with Barry, having attended his wedding, along with Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera in friendlier times. His letter to the newspapers was more in sorry than in anger. It had been unnecessary for Aiken to stir up past controversies, Duggan wrote, particularly in regard to a man of such soldierly achievement, whatever one happened to think of his present course of action (an indication that Duggan did not think too much of it).
‘Of the Meanest Kind’
When Barry did find the time to write to the papers – three of which, Irish Press, Irish Independent and Cork Examiner, would publish the correspondence of the unfolding feud – it was in a very different tone to Duggan’s. Barry denounced the “vicious and lying attack on me….This statement of Mr. Aiken is of the meanest kind, as he merely suggests to the audience, without definitely stating so, that I was guilty of some dishonourable conduct.”
It was the vagueness of Aiken’s public statements that particularly infuriated Barry. Going where Aiken had not, Barry proceeded to put meat on the bones of the accusations he believed the other man had alluded to:
That he had not fought in the Civil War.
That he had been running about the country attempting to make peace instead of aiding his comrades while they were facing death in battle or by execution.
That his conduct during the Civil War had, in general, been dishonourable and cowardly.
Having set up the points against himself, Barry went on to tick them off:
He would leave the question as to whether or not he had fought in the Civil War to those Volunteers who had accompanied him on active service.
At no point had he attempted to make peace.
Barry did not deign to address his own third point, presumably leaving his record to speak for itself. As for the second, he conceded that he had been involved in a couple of attempts but only in passing: the ‘Archbishop Harty Proposals’ and the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms Policy’.
The first effort had involved Father Duggan – the same man who would come to Barry’s defence – acting as a courier in February 1923 with copies of proposals addressed to individual members of the IRA Executive, including Barry. These proposals were unanimously rejected.
In March, Duggan again forwarded proposals, this time backed by Archbishop Harty of Cashel. Barry agreed to circulate them among the Executive and, once more, the proposals were uniformly turned down. As for the second peace effort, the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms Policy’ of May 1923 had been unanimously adopted by the IRA Executive, including both Barry and Aiken.
At no point had Barry acted with any other motive than the saving of Republican lives in the face of the Free State’s overwhelming superiority. Laying the onus on Aiken to explain his remarks in Dundalk or else publicly withdraw them, Barry ended his letter with some pointed innuendo of his own:
Mr Aiken’s attack now – 12 years afterwards – does not arise out of the Civil War period, but out of present day circumstances.
‘His New Campaign of Vilification’
Irish Press readers were not given the last sentence of Barry’s letter, which was left in by the Irish Independent and Cork Examiner:
And I tell Mr Aiken that his new campaign of vilification against Republicans will fail to stop the Republican advance just as surely as his coercion campaign has already failed.
There was a reason for the Irish Press editors to be so coy. After all, Fianna Fáil, whose party line the Irish Press was there to follow, was conscious of its own Republican heritage. An article on the 4th June stressed the contribution of ‘Old’ IRA men – those who had been members during the revolutionary years but not necessarily afterwards – to the campaign of the Fianna Fáil candidate in a Galway by-election (by contrast, the Opposition-leaning Cork Examiner focused more on the voter apathy during the same election).
Accusations of turning on one’s own were perhaps best left unread.
Nonetheless, Aiken felt obliged to respond to Barry’s letter with one of his own. His tone was one of embarrassment, perhaps by the unseemliness of the whole affair, but he was also unapologetic. He pointed out that he had had no intention of mentioning Barry in Dundalk, and that only after provocation had Barry’s name been drawn from him. But after all that, what Aiken had said was true and he would not be taking it back.
As for Barry’s insistence that he had sought to make peace during the Civil War, Aiken retorted that the former’s activities had not been quite as innocent as he was making out. Indeed, Barry’s extracurricular activities had been a source of great concern to the then IRA Chief of Staff, Liam Lynch.
‘Doing His Worst’
A letter of Lynch’s from the 19th February 1923 was quoted: “I have already done my utmost to keep you informed of peace moves here. You have also facts in the Press re Father Duggan. Barry is doing about his worst here.” Barry had apparently done his ‘worst’ earlier in the month, having made a personal offer through the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of the Free State Cork Command, according to Aiken.
Barry maintained his independent streak to the end of the Civil War. While he assented to the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms Policy’, he remained dissatisfied due to the arms in question not being put beyond use. On the 8th June, Barry wrote a memorandum urging the liquidation of the weapons, and followed that up on the 20th with a threat to restart the Civil War if the arms remained usable.
Unintentionally confirming Barry’s argument that Aiken’s attacks emanated from contemporary circumstances as much as past ones, Aiken pointed to the inconsistency of Barry now urging a course of action that could only lead to another civil war. While some might find this incomprehensible, those “who know Mr. Barry’s irresponsibility, however, are not surprised”:
Courage is not the only quality needed in a solder. A sense of discipline is also necessary, but Mr. Barry does not appreciate the fact.
It was because of this indiscipline, according to Aiken, that he forced Barry to resign from the IRA Executive on the 11th July. Aiken archly posed a question to the same young hecklers in Dundalk: if they regarded Barry as a responsible leader, why did he postpone the resumption of military activities – an oblique reference to Barry’s re-entry to the IRA in 1932 – until Fianna Fáil went into government?
Aiken sounded more aggrieved at any Republican violence happening on his party’s watch than with the violence per se. He was on firmer ground when talking about Lynch’s displeasure with Barry’s attempts at peace. The two had fallen out over the issue and badly so but Lynch had initially been open to the idea of a peaceful solution.
Sometime in mid-1922, Barry and Liam Deasy, a fellow Corkonian and the anti-Treatyite O/C of the First Southern Division, had met two officers in the Free State Army to iron out a possible peace proposal. Among the suggestions was that both sides would disband and be reformed under a fresh executive that would ensure the Government would reject the undesirable elements in the Treaty.
The men involved were sufficiently enthused about their proposal to consider taking it directly to General Richard Mulcahy. The results of the parley were included in the minutes of an IRA Executive meeting on the 16th-17th October 1920, showing that not only was Lynch aware of these peace efforts but that he made no move to stop them. The arrogance of the IRA Executive shined through in their presumption that any peace deals would be made largely on its terms, with compromises to be made primarily by the opposition, but the topic of peace had not yet become a poisonous one. 
By the start of 1923, it had.
Barry continued to pursue the possibility of peace through the efforts of Father Duggan. Well-liked and trusted by both sides, Duggan had been working ceaselessly to find a way to end the Civil War since its start. Intransigent in his belief that victory was still possible, Liam Lynch made it clear to Duggan that he was not about to compromise in the slightest.
To make sure Barry also understood, Lynch wrote him a “strongly worded letter,” in the words of the latter’s young aide Todd Andrews, ordering his subordinate to break off any further peace efforts.
Lynch perhaps assumed that that would be the end of it, until he and Andrews were abruptly awoken one night by someone kicking in their bedroom door. Holding a candle in one hand and waving a sheet of paper in the other, Barry demanded of Lynch whether he had written the letter.
When Lynch calmly affirmed, Barry ranted that he had fought more in a week than the Chief of Staff had done in his life. Andrews could not help but laugh after Barry had stormed off: “Barry’s dramatic entrance holding the candlestick with the lighted candle struck me as having something of a character of an Abbey Theatre farce.”
To Father Duggan, Barry’s impeachable record as a guerrilla fighter had allowed him to say what others did not dare. Those same credentials, however, had also gone to his head.
Lynch had stoically waited out Barry’s tirade but relations between the two had deteriorated past the point of repair. If Lynch was an inflexible militant, then Barry had become a militant peacenik, one willing to use whatever tool at his disposal to end the fratricidal conflict.
In May 1923, Barry tried the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). With the help of a go-between, he proposed unsuccessfully to Seán Ó Muirthile, a senior figure in both the IRB and the Free State Army, for the secret society to exert its influence in reuniting the two warring sides. As Barry made the offer in his own name, it is unlikely that Lynch or anyone else had authorised or even knew of it.
The subsequent meeting between Barry and his commanding officer fared no better. Lynch had arranged to rendezvous with him and the equally tenacious Father Duggan in Ballingeary, Co. Cork. Although the date is uncertain, it occurred shortly after the Ballyseedy Massacre of the 6th March 1923.
Lynch and Andrews arrived in Ballingeary to find the other two already present and waiting with a group of several others on the opposite side of the street. To Andrews, the surreal scene resembled one from a Western film where rival posses would ride into town for a shootout.
While no six-shooters were drawn, the talks ended as fruitlessly as before. Frustration turned to loathing; according to historian Meda Ryan in her 1982 book on Barry (not repeated in her 2003 edition), his friends “would say that Barry had venom in his voice when speaking” of Lynch.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that it was Barry who proposed Aiken as the new Chief of Staff after Lynch’s death. Anyone would have to be more amenable than his predecessor. Barry would soon learn how wrong he was.
Meet the New Boss…
On the 11th July 1923, Barry stepped down from the IRA Executive. In his resignation letter, he insisted that any suggestion of his had made had been entirely dependent on the majority of the leadership agreeing to it. Furthermore:
I also want to state that the rumours propagated in some cases by Republicans as to my negotiations for peace with the Free State, are absolutely false. Lies, suspicion and distrust are broadcasted, and I have no option but to remove myself from a position wherein I can be suspected of compromising the position. I have never entered into negotiations for peace by compromise with the Free State.
Barry admitted to a technical breach of discipline in the sending of a signed communication with three other senior IRA men. In this, he had been motivated by a desire to save the lives of their men and did not regret anything. Despite the ignominious circumstances of his exit, he affirmed his willingness to take up arms again for an independent Ireland when called upon.
Tension had been hinted at in the minutes of earlier Executive meetings, although not, on the surface at least, irreconcilably so. Aiken was elected the Chief of Staff on the 26th April 1923 after being put forward by Barry and seconded by Seán MacSwiney. A resolution, proposed by Aiken and again seconded by MacSwiney, empowered the Executive to make peace with the Free State on the basis of certain conditions.
That they felt the need to include quotation marks around the word ‘Government’ in regards to the Free State indicates that the twelve men present were finding even this mild climb-down a bitter pill to swallow.
It was at least a break with the late Lynch’s intractability but not enough of one for Barry. He proposed an amendment, seconded by Tom Crofts, that all armed resistance to the Free State be called off. With only Barry and Crofts voting for the amendment, one abstaining and the other nine against, the motion was defeated.
The vote for another motion – the recommendation to carry on fighting should the Free State reject peace overtures – was more evenly divided, with six for, including Aiken, and six against, including Barry and Crofts. Once again Barry had found himself to be the ‘moderate’ opposition against a hardliner Chief of Staff.
Barry was not one to do nothing when something was an option, and took the time until the next meeting on the 11th July to try and break the deadlock. However well-intentioned, he had finally gone too far.
When the Executive met again, Aiken read out a document he had received that had been signed by Barry and three other senior officers, two of whom – Crofts and Liam Pilkington – were present. The signatories had threatened in their circular to take unauthorised action. Though the nature of this threat was not included in the minutes, it was probably to restart the fighting if the IRA arms were not decommissioned.
With Barry running late, it was agreed to postpone further debate until he arrived. When he did, Aiken repeated what he had said before. The document contained a threat, Aiken said, and must be withdrawn. Cowed, Crofts and Pilkington agreed and withdrew their offending statement.
Barry was not so easily daunted. Aiken pressed him to withdraw as the others had done or else he would request his resignation. When Barry chose the second option, Aiken, perhaps taken aback, asked him to reconsider. Having decided he had already made his bed, Barry stuck to his decision and left the meeting. Seeing which way the wind was turning, Pilkington proposed that his former ally’s resignation be accepted. And so it was.
Although he had made some effort to keep Barry on board, Aiken found the whole episode so distasteful that, in a letter on the 19th July 1923, he threatened the suspension and court-martial of anyone who attempted to “seduce Volunteers from their allegiance, or by doing any act or making any statement prejudicial to the maintenance of discipline.”
Tom Barry’s Second Reply
Barry opened his follow-up letter on the 7th June 1935 with a complaint that the respective newspapers involved had not published his previous one in full. Due to the considerable publicity the matter had received, Barry asked that this message be published unabridged.
He did, after all, have a lot to say.
The only satisfactory way Barry could see of resolving the controversy would be the setting up of a committee of enquiry. This panel would investigate all the allegations, receive any evidence and then publish their findings. Barry did not think it would be hard to find three or five impartial men to serve on this proposed committee.
For Barry, there could be no purer or more reliable methodology than that of a committee. When approached by the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1958, Barry not only refused to give a statement – anything of importance he had already said in his memoir – but questioned the BMH’s practice of receiving any and all statements without prior verification. Better instead, in his opinion, for a committee to go through every submitted statement and reject accordingly for absolute historical accuracy.
‘From a Republican Point of View’
Obviously deciding that the best way of fighting fire was to pour on the gasoline and strike a match of his own, Barry drew up a list of his accusations against Aiken for the latter’s Civil War conduct:
Aiken, despite his professions of being opposed to the Treaty, joined the Free State Army in 1922.
He remained in the Army even when the Four Courts were attacked, after which he came to Dublin to draw his pay as a Free State officer before returning to Dundalk.
He became neutral on his return to Dundalk, only throwing his lot in with the Anti-Treaty side after his arrest by the Free State and subsequent escape.
Aiken avoided all fighting, except in Dundalk on one occasion.
That he came unarmed to the IRA Executive meetings demoralised those who expected such a leader to be armed.
Aiken was mainly responsible for the defeat in the Civil War due to his initial alliance with the Free State, his wobbling attitudes and his refusal to fight.
After these six points – which were actually five since the sixth was just a summary of the previous ones – Barry went on to discuss his ‘Leinster House Proposal’. He had made a passing reference to it in his previous letter with no details other than a claim that it could have turned defeat into victory.
Lest this ‘Leinster House Proposal’ be misconstrued as political in nature (clearly a dirty word in Barry’s dictionary), he explained that after the ‘Cease Fire and Dump Arms’ orders, he proposed leading a commando squad into Leinster House to catch the Free State Government inside.
Both Aiken and De Valera queried the feasibility of such a daring plan, with the former ultimately nixing what could have brought the War, in Barry’s view, to a “successful conclusion from a Republican point of view.”
Aiken had lambasted the other man for the hypocrisy of urging peace before and a militant view now. Paying evil unto evil, Barry pointed out that he, unlike Aiken, had not issued orders during the Civil War forbidding IRA members to recognise Free State institutes and courts, and then, once in government, jailing Republicans for refusing to acknowledge these same institutions.
Barry was not the only one with the belief that Fianna Fáil was giving its fellow ideological travellers a raw deal. In Co. Kerry, Listowel Urban Council passed a motion protesting against the suppression of An Phoblacht newspaper and the closing of Republican offices. Members of the Council called on the Taoiseach to end the coercion of the IRA since it had put him into office in the first place, something which the electorate might have been surprised to hear.
But the Council was not speaking idly on its other points. In Longford, Gardaí seized the latest issue of An Phoblacht as it was being printed. All copies were taken away, with detectives remaining on the premises. In Dublin, women from Cumann na mBan marched through Dublin to protest against the forced closure of their offices.
Even the victor of Kilmichael was not untouchable. Accompanied by his wife and large numbers of friends, Barry left Cork for the Curragh Camp. For the past fortnight he had been out on parole but with that ended, he was to complete a sentence of six months, courtesy of the Military Tribunal, for seditious utterance and unlawful associations.
Frank Aiken’s Second Reply
Aiken dug in his heels in his subsequent letter to Barry a day later, the rapidity of each other’s replies revealing in itself how heated the exchange was. Aiken reiterated his accusations in a list of his own:
Barry had carried out unauthorised peace negotiations with the Free State in the spring of 1923.
Liam Lynch had been deeply worried about these activities.
Barry had urged the destruction of weapons at the end of the Civil War.
His resignation had been forced by Aiken due to insubordination.
These facts were true and beyond a shadow of doubt, according to Aiken. Indeed, Barry had not really tried to deny them. Aiken added that he would have no further dealings with his former comrade. After all, if those in Fianna Fáil replied to every false accusation thrown their way, they would never get anything done. It was only to prevent impressionable youths from being misled that Aiken continued to respond.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Barry had wounded him on a personal level as he denied that Barry had ever suggested anything like an attack on the Free State Government:
Even if Mr. Barry, to cover his confusion, were to prove that the I.R.A., after Liam Lynch was killed, had elected as their Chief of Staff the greatest coward in the world, and even if it were true (and it is not) that he proposed a stunt attack in Dublin in May, 1923, after hostilities had ceased…
Aiken continued to goad at the inconsistency of Barry’s attitude at the end of the Civil War, in particular his adamance that the IRA arms be destroyed, with his more militant one in the present which only restarted when Fianna Fáil entered government.
Frank Aiken’s War
The rest of his letter was an explanation of actions during the Civil War prior to joining the anti-Treaty side, as well as a defence against Barry’s accusations. The only point of Barry’s he ignored was the one about demoralising the IRA Executive by turning up unarmed to meetings but that was a nonsensical one anyway.
Aiken explained that he had never made any secret of his horror at the thought of civil war and had done his best to prevent it. To head off the impending crisis, he had brought together Arthur Griffith, Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, Lynch and others on both sides of the growing divide. From this meeting came the Collins-de Valera Pact of May 1922. While short-lived, the Pact had at least brought an end to the sporadic violence from before.
When the Four Courts were attacked in June 1922, Aiken made his way to Dublin and urged General Richard Mulcahy to call a truce. When that failed, Aiken travelled to Limerick in the hope of contacting Liam Lynch, the implication being he had been an Anti-Treatyite earlier than he had officially declared.
‘Wise, Loyal and Disciplined’
Having failed again, he returned to Dundalk where he was imprisoned by the Free State. Following his escape, “calculating and seeing clearly the cost, I deliberately took the decision to fight my best to resist the overthrow of the Republic by a coup d’etát,” by which he described the formation of the Free State.
Barry had tried to paint the other man as mercenary and insincere. Aiken had responded with a self-image of a man true to his principles even when sorely tested by circumstances beyond his control.
In case anyone continued to doubt his Republican credentials, Aiken told of how he had done his best to abolish the hated Oath of Allegiance since entering government. Having adopted the political path, Aiken remained determined to “oppose internecine strife and to do my utmost to unite all wise, loyal and disciplined citizens to secure a Republic.”
‘Wise’, ‘loyal’ and ‘disciplined’ – these three adjectives were clearly synonymous in Aiken’s worldview, with the last in particular a favoured watchword.
An earlier letter to the press in 1933 allowed Aiken to expound on the dual subjects of discipline and the young. Sounding as much as a moral reformer as a politician on a soapbox, Aiken wrote of how: “The success of this generation in the achievement of national freedom…will be governed in no small measure by the extent to which the principle of national discipline is accepted…by the young men of to-day.”
Letters of Aid
Barry’s return to jail seemed to have given him pause, for he did not reply at once. In the meantime, four of his comrades from the past stepped in and lent a helping hand. Three of them – James Donovan, Seán Goughlan and Seán MacSwiney – put their names to a letter on the 12th June, saying that Barry had been attached to their 1st Cork Brigade in the IRA since his return from abroad in 1927, as part of which he had carried out all his assigned duties (however, historian Brian Hanley says that Barry did not rejoin the IRA until 1932).
This letter was in refutation to Aiken’s claim that Barry had resumed his IRA activities until the advent of the Fianna Fáil Government in 1932. Considering how Barry was imprisoned partly as a result of these activities, it probably was not the most helpful of letters, however well meant.
Another Cork IRA member, Tom Crofts, wrote a second letter to the newspapers on the same day in regards to the controversy. As he had often been the only other member of the IRA Executive during the Civil War to side with Barry, it was only fitting that he should come in as support now.
Introducing himself as the O/C of the 1st Southern Division and a member of the IRA Executive during the Civil War, and thus in a position to know, Crofts addressed the claim by Aiken that Barry had made a personal peace offer on the 19th February 1923 to the GOC of the Free State Cork Command. That offer had actually been made by Father Duggan, who assured Crofts that he had not been authorised by Barry or any other IRA officer to act on their behalf.
Charles F. Russell
Letters to the press seemed solidly behind Barry. The only dissenting pen was from a retired colonel in the Free State Army, Charles F. Russell. In response to Barry’s claim that he had never entered into negotiations with the enemy, Russell told of how he had met Barry and Liam Deasy in Cork for the purposes of a peace conference. The only detail Russell gives is that it was held in Father Duggan’s house but says nothing about what was discussed. Afterwards, Russell drove the two Anti-Treatyites past the Free State sentries.
Russell dated the parley to 1923 but, as historian Meda Ryan points out, Deasy had been in jail since January, making his presence an implausible one. Nonetheless, the meeting is mentioned in the minutes of the IRA Executive for October 1922, the same one in which Barry and Deasy had discussed with their counterparts the possibility of both armies disbanding and coming together in a fresh start.
Russell added that he had made a full report to GHQ afterwards, though it is doubtful that he included everything. The civilian Government, after all, would have been firmly under the thumb of the military under these new arrangements. The men at the meeting had been sufficiently enthused about their proposal to consider taking it directly to General Richard Mulcahy in Dublin but, failing that, they would appeal directly to officers in the Free State Army to defect.
Russell emphasised in his letter how he had been acting under orders (however unlikely Mulcahy would have approved of all that was said). The same could be said of Barry. After all, Lynch had known of these negotiations and permitted them. But in the years afterwards, that was not what people wanted to hear. There was room only for black and white, for heroes of incorruptible purity or vile traitors, and none for the shades of grey.
Tom Barry’s Third Reply
Imprisonment may have slowed Barry but it had not stopped him. His second letter, dated the 13th June, began by noting Aiken’s refusal of the offer of an impartial committee to mediate on the matter. Which was not entirely correct. Aiken had not so much refused the offer as refused to acknowledge it. As for Aiken’s dismissal of any further dealings with Barry, Barry assured his readers that Aiken “will have further dealings with me or else withdraw his charges.”
For those readers failing to keep track, Barry reiterated the said charges: that he had made a personal offer of peace through the GOC of the Free State Cork Command on the 19th February 1923. As part of this, Aiken had quoted a dispatch, also dated the 19th February 1923, from Liam Lynch about Barry’s and Father Duggan’s activities appearing in the press.
Sounding very different to the man who had screamed at his superior about the deficiencies in the other’s fighting record, Barry denounced the use of Lynch’s “honoured name” as a new low. It was also factually wrong. According to Barry, the late general could not have written such a thing on the 19th as Father Duggan’s name had not appeared in the media in regards to the ‘Archbishop Harty proposals’ until the 9th of March.
As for the personal peace offer to the GOC, Barry flatly repudiated such a thing. Showing his willingness to press a point, Barry challenged Aiken to request Colonel David Reynolds, the GOC in Cork at the time, to state whether or not he had ever received such a proposal through him.
As to what Aiken had said about Barry’s disciplinarian problems, Barry fell back on his earlier stance; that by March 1923, the Anti-Treatyites had been militarily defeated. Barry had thus focused on saving as many Republican lives as he could, and he would do the same today if under similar circumstances.
‘Very, Very Serious Charges’
Disappointingly, Barry did not raise again the subject of his ‘Leinster House’ proposal which Aiken had denied ever being put forward. Indeed, Barry’s defence of his lack of martial spirit on pragmatic and humanitarian grounds is sharply at odds with his claim that he offered to decapitate the enemy government in a last throw-of-the-dice blitz.
Also lacking was the same zeal to attack Aiken’s Civil War conduct as before, saying merely that he had “made very, very serious charges against Mr. Aiken…which he has not denied.” Aiken had more defended than denied Barry’s charges but that distinction seemed lost on the other man.
Aiken, he continued, had “evaded and confused the issue” – something that could be said of both men. Barry wrapped up his third letter by once again challenging Aiken to either prove his charges or publicly withdraw them.
Aiken was true to his word in refusing to have any further dealings with Barry. He sent no further replies and the debate petered out, leaving Barry with the satisfaction at least of having the last word.
Later, on the 21st June, Barry could claim another victory: he and the other four defendants were acquitted of the charges of assault against John E. Barry and his wife in a courtroom that had attracted so many onlookers that many could not be admitted for lack of space. It was a small respite as Barry was led away back to Cork Goal and then returned to the Curragh Camp to finish the sentence imposed by the Military Tribunal.
This had not been the first time Aiken had had to publicly defend his past record in a testy exchange of letters with former comrades. Two years ago in 1933, it had been him against Seán MacBride, the point of contention being his conduct during the IRA Convention of 1925 when, as Chief of Staff, he had opposed the Republican policy of abstentionism.
MacBride had mocked Aiken’s attempts to show his conduct as “logical and consistent…to reconcile his past with his present acts,” not something Aiken would have disagreed with, minus the sneer. For him, his actions had been logical and consistent. But then, Barry could have argued the same. Both had done what they thought had been right at the time.
Barry was a loose cannon and Aiken a turncoat as far as the other man was concerned but, in their determination and willingness to bend, if not defy, the accepted norms of their contemporaries, the two had more in common than they cared to acknowledge. Perhaps they were simply too similar to be anything other than adversaries.
Both had been flexible enough to challenge the rigidity of their peers and to see alternative options to fruitless conflict: for Barry, the need for compromise regardless of what his superiors thought, and with Aiken, the possibility that politics might achieve what brute strength could not. But, however much they were capable of defying Republican orthodoxy, both men were believers enough to be embarrassed when others pointed out their heresies.
Historian Matthew Lewis describes the Aiken-Barry exchange as a “brief, if uneventful, public spat.” More perceptively, Evan Bryce notes how the “republican ‘big men’ were still scrapping over ownership of the glorious past.” But the dispute had been less about the glory and more about the ignominy, and the past not so much a treasured prize as an unclean scab that some could not help but pick at.
By January 1923, with the Irish Civil War still ongoing, Seán Ó Muirthile was a busy man as Quartermaster General of the Free State Army. Not too busy, however, to turn his thoughts towards an issue that he believed needed serious consideration: the state of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB).
Some prominent army officers had been wondering amongst themselves about the future of the Brotherhood to which they had previously belonged. In theory they still did, but the Supreme Council of the IRB had not met since the January of the previous year, and neither had there been meetings of the local branches throughout Ireland. The policy had been to await events and then set about re-uniting the Organisation, as insiders were supposed to refer to it. If the time for this was not now, then when?
It was entirely natural that these officers would bring such concerns to Ó Muirthile. He was, after all, one of the few remaining members of the Supreme Council still around, not to mention a former confidant of the late, great Michael Collins.
Commander-in-Chief of the Army as well as President of the IRB, Collins had exemplified the dual role of soldier and operative that many in the Army were eager to emulate. Certainly, Ó Muirthile had little doubt that Collins, had he lived, would have continued using the Organisation in the pursuit of achieving further freedom for Ireland.
With these questions in mind, Ó Muirthile consulted the other Supreme Council members who were also serving in the Army. The basic points that were agreed upon in their January meeting were that:
The proud tradition of the IRB should be preserved and passed onto those loyal to the Free State government.
This effort would fall upon the previous members of the Supreme Council.
The Free State government must not be prejudiced or subverted in any way even if any members of its Executive Council were also in the IRB.
The seriousness of this last point is an open question. The past record of the IRB did not indicate an unwillingness to wield its underground influence on the other bodies it had infiltrated, whether they were the Irish Volunteers, the Gaelic League, Sinn Féin or others. Whether the Free State Army would be the exception, however, would remain to be seen, as there was still plenty of work to be done on the first two points.
This was begun in earnest a few weeks later. The matter of a revived IRB was put to a number of army officers stationed in Dublin who had also been IRB Centres, or junior officers (each Centre being in charge of a Circle, the basic unit of the IRB, consisting of no more than 10 members). The feedback was positive, with the consensus of opinion being that these proposals could be put into effect.
The only caveat was that a new constitution should be written to accommodate IRB men serving in the Army. After an existence on the outskirts of power, the fraternity would have to adjust to being on the inside.
A New Constitution
A copy of such a constitution gives an idea as to how this accommodation could have been managed. Titled ‘I.R.B. Constitution – 1923 (Provisional?)’, it can be found in the papers of Florence O’Donoghue. Once a prominent IRB/IRA officer, he had dropped out of both, disillusioned by the fratricide of the Civil War.
The document had been sent to O’Donoghue by a “D. Lynch”, possibly Diarmuid Lynch, another former IRB man. Whoever the sender, he had noted at the top of the document: “This copy was made by me of the new official draft (which I was not supposed to have seen).”
Another annotation in the margins identified Ó Muirthile and General Richard Mulcahy as the ones who had presented this proposed constitution to the Army. Truly, this revived IRB was moving in elevated circles.
The successor to Michael Collins as the Commander-in-Chief, Mulcahy had also sat on the IRB Supreme Council with Ó Muirthile before the Civil War. It was a sign that the new IRB would be continuing with the old leadership.
Much of the document is a rehash of material from past IRB constitutions. This is unsurprising, given that it was supposed to be building on an already established society, but there are some noteworthy, not to say disturbing, innovations.
One such is the Clause 13(b): in addition to the Divisions for different Irish counties (15 and a 16th for Great Britain) as before, there were to be eleven parallel Divisions for the Army, each based on a different command post. The 1st Division encompassed G.H.Q., the second was for the Dublin Command, the third for the Curragh Command, and so on.
To no other institution in the Free State did the Constitution pay such particular attention; as far as the new IRB was concerned, the Army was very much its territory, to be managed accordingly.
While the groupings of the rest of the Organisation consisted of ‘Circles’, those within the Army would be ‘Clubs’ but otherwise would follow the same arrangements, with the Clubs not exceeding ten members unless authorised by the Supreme Council, and each to be headed by a Centre who would report up the IRB chain of command. The new additions were intended to work seamlessly with the old, an exception being that a Club member could not also be in a civilian Circle.
Every Power and Movement in the Nation
The Supreme Council was to be expanded accordingly. There would be twenty-eight members, as opposed to the fifteen in the 1920 Constitution: one from each of the sixteen Divisions covering the country, and eight out of the eleven Army Divisions. The remaining four would be co-opted by the remainder.
Thus constituted, the Supreme Council would be ready to pursue its stated aims:
Objects 1. The objects of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (hereinafter sometimes called “The Organisation”) shall be: – To establish and maintain a free and independent Republican Government in Ireland.
Policy 2(a) Whereas National Sovereignty is inherent and inalienable and, while acknowledging that political authority is exercised through instruments legitimately expressed, the Irish Republican Brotherhood pledges itself the custodies of the Republican Ideal – the traditional expression of National Independence.
(b) The policy of the IRB shall be to utilise every power and movement in the Nation, it shall influence them in their activities so as to secure that the maximum organised strength of the Nation – armed, economic, political, social and otherwise shall be at all times available for the achievement of its objects.
It is hard to say how much of a finished product this document was intended to be: a rough draft or the final instructions. But it is not the proclamation of an organisation that was planning on going away anytime soon.
Instead, it showed a leadership that was thinking in the long term. It was prepared to be innovative, with its expanded Supreme Council and the formation of ‘Clubs’ to fulfil the role of Circles’. But in its assurance of itself as the only true keeper of the Republican flame and the willingness to use others in the pursuit of that self-appointed mission, it had revealed itself as very much the IRB of old.
Tom Barry’s Plea
Ó Muirthile and his Army colleagues were not the only ones considering what a resuscitated IRB could bring. Four months after agreeing to revive the Organisation, Ó Muirthile had an appointment in his office with Seán O’Hegarty in May 1923.
The former O/C of the Cork 1st Brigade, O’Hegarty had remained neutral during the Civil War, though he remained in close contact with many of his former comrades. It was on behalf of one of these compatriots, Tom Barry, the famed leader of the West Cork Flying Column, that O’Hegarty had asked for the meeting.
O’Hegarty delivered to Ó Muirthile a letter written by Barry. Announcing himself as “an officer in the Organisation in County Cork”, Barry appealed to the pro-Treaty IRB to use its influence towards stopping the manhunt of the embattled Anti-Treatyites, many of whom, like Barry, considered themselves as much a part of the Brotherhood as their Free State counterparts. The Brotherhood, Barry argued, should come together again as one body in order to not lose sight of its ideals, particularly as there was still work to be done for the Republic.
Beneath the stirring rhetoric, Barry was counting on the IRB to facilitate an honourable climb-down for both sides. As far as Ó Muirthile was concerned, that horse had well and truly left the stable. Another prominent Anti-Treatyite, Liam Deasy, had already signed a public document while imprisoned, urging his partisans to surrender themselves and their arms to the Free State. Ó Muirthile curtly declined to pass on Barry’s message to the rest of the Army Council and told O’Hegarty that if the Anti-Treatyites had any interest in stopping the fight, they should consider Deasy’s example.
For Ó Muirthile, the only value of the meeting was how it revealed the depths of the despair among the Anti-Treatyites. If a fighter like Barry was close to breaking point, then there was little hope for the rest. Contrary to what he told O’Hegarty, he did discuss the matter with Mulcahy and the rest of the Army Council. They likewise were indifferent, and nothing was passed onto the government.
Barry’s hopes for the Brotherhood as a bridge between the two sides had been mired in sentimentality and wishful thinking. Ó Muirthile’s dismissal was pitiless but clear-headed. From then on, any new incarnation of the IRB would be formed on the Army’s terms.
Roads Not Taken
While a failure, Barry’s letter did provide a convenient excuse when the re-emergence of the IRB became public knowledge in the wake of the Army Mutiny of 1924. Speaking to the Dáil on the 26th June 1924, Richard Mulcahy quoted a note he had made shortly after learning of the offer from Ó Muirthile, with the following points:
1. The Anti-Treatyites had tried to form their own IRB to strengthen their grip on their members.
2. That Barry’s letter was addressed to the Supreme Council showed his recognition of its authority.
3. That the letter came from Barry was particularly important given his reputation as a fighter.
4. The IRB might be utilised as a body for which the Anti-Treatyites could acquiesce in terms of them disbanding without humiliation.
5. That there was no group other than the IRB in such a position made the situation a delicate one.
The first point is a peculiar one as there had been nothing in Barry’s letter about attempts among the Anti-Treatyites at forming a counter-IRB. It is possible that Mulcahy had heard about the musings of Liam Lynch, the IRA Chief of Staff, about reforming the IRB Supreme Council, and the Brotherhood in general, along Anti-Treatyite lines.
Although nothing came of such plans, they showed that the IRB was still indeed considered a valid institution by many on the Anti-Treaty side, and that Mulcahy’s hopes were not entirely without substance.
Mulcahy made a second note a few days later, expanding on his original thoughts:
1. The Anti-Treatyite IRA was at a dead end as a body and should disband, with only the IRB able to provide a pivotal point to arrange this.
2. The IRB was fully controlled by the Army Council. It was possible that within a couple of years, the IRB could evolve into an open political society, much like the Irish Volunteers had done.
3. While the Government might not want to associate with a secret society like the IRB, it was essential that the state control the moulding of the Organisation, both as a constructive entity and as a means for penitent Anti-Treatyites to withdraw from the Civil War with honour.
The problem with these noble-sounding, if wistful, ambitions is that there is no evidence of any attempts to put them into practice. Ó Muirthile’s later account made it clear that the reaction of the Army Council, including Mulcahy, towards the letter was an imperious, if not contemptuous, one – hardly the best basis for an IRB outreach programme.
Whether the IRB could become an open society and not a secret one, using the Irish Volunteers as its template, is a question that would never be answered. However, there is nothing in the 1923 Constitution to suggest any such leanings. If anything, the old oath to keep the secrets of the Brotherhood and the right of the Supreme Council to punish any errant members remained on paper.
As for the notion of the state being allowed to guide the IRB, that would again be in contrast to the list of goals in the 1923 Constitution which made it plain that the new role of the Organisation was to be the other way around. Far from being given the keys to the Brotherhood, state ministers were kept in the dark for long as they could be.
Suspicious of rumours he was hearing about Army officers being summoned from all over the country to sit in secret sessions, the Minister of Justice, Kevin O’Higgins, confronted Mulcahy in February 1923. With no small amount of chutzpah, the general blandly denied that there was anything behind such reports.
Mucahy’s statements to the Dáil must thus be seen as excuses and rationalisations after the fact, for all the evidence points to the IRB being for the IRB first and foremost.
Kevin O’Higgins Concerns
This revived IRB was to be very much an elitist affair. The informal meetings that Ó Muirthile had characterised the IRB revival had been between those with previous experience in the administrative roles for the Organisation. Ó Muirthile took care to consult former Supreme Council members and IRB officers but made no effort to reach out to ordinary initiates.
This was more than mere thoughtless but part of a glass-ceiling policy. As he described later in his memoirs, Ó Muirthile did not think it wise to be indiscriminate in the shaping of the new Brotherhood. This cartel within a cabal soon led to resentment among those on the outside, a simmering discontent that would have ruinous consequences for all concerned.
But before that, Ó Muirthile had more immediate worries. Shortly after seeing O’Hegarty, Ó Muirthile heard that Kevin O’Higgins, the Minister for Justice, had found out about the efforts within the Army to revive the IRB. Wishing to head off any future problems, Ó Muirthile discussed the matter with Mulcahy, and they agreed to invite O’Higgins to a meeting where they could soothe his fears.
As O’Higgins later recalled, Mulcahy came to him “in a purely personal way” which the minister found distasteful. Another bit of overfamiliarity was how the general referred to Seán Ó Muirthile by name rather than by his rank of Lieutenant-General. O’Higgins made his displeasure plain at the subject of the IRB. He may also have been a member in the pre-Truce days but now, secret societies could only be detrimental to the state of the Army, not to mention the country. Mulcahy accepted this but asked O’Higgins to come along to the meeting all the same.
It was on this unpromising start that the meeting was held on the 10th July in the office of President W.T. Cosgrave. Cosgrave was present along with O’Higgins and the Minister for Education, Eoin MacNeill. Representing the IRB were Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy. Ó Muirthile began by bringing up the subject of Tom Barry’s letter, which was discussed in a general way by those present but resulted in nothing definite.
The talk then turned to the IRB. Ó Muirthile was happy to outline to his audience the activities of the society before and after the Treaty. He was to leave the meeting confident that the ministers had understood his position and accepted the IRB as part of the new state of affairs.
On that score, however, Ó Muirthile was to be very, very much so mistaken.
A Conspiracy against the Conspiracy
Another erroneous assumption on Ó Muirthile’s part was that the junior IRB members who found themselves disenfranchised would passively acquiesce. A rival faction was formed out of these frustrations: the IRA Organisation (IRAO), also called the Old IRA or the Tobin Gang after Liam Tobin, one of its ringleaders and a former gunman in Michael Collins’ Squad.
Tobin added the foreword to The Truth about the Army Crisis, the document disseminated by the IRAO to explain its motives and grievances. The impact The Truth had on a wider audience is doubtful, and there no evidence that it rallied any segment of the Irish public to its cause, but it does reveal much about the conflict between the IRAO and the IRB, how they differed and, more importantly, where the groups overlapped.
The main difference between The Truth’s and Ó Muirthile’s version of events is which group came first: the IRB or the IRAO. According to the former, the IRB had never gone away to begin with, and was keen to stress the continuity between the ideals of the IRB of old and the aspirations of the new:
The big majority of the (IRB) members…accepted the Treaty as a means towards complete independence, and felt, when they joined the Free State Army, that they were acting in accordance with the spirit and tradition of the Brotherhood, and, of course, they all had the continuity of the Organisation in mind.
The appearance of the IRAO seems almost incidental in Ó Muirthile’s account. He went so far as to deny that the two factions were rivals. This seems highly disingenuous in light of the IRAO’s insistence that their insubordination against the Army Council was fuelled by the hostility of the IRB, which they clearly equated with the Council.
In The Truth, the new IRB was not created until after the IRAO had already been set up. Alarmed by the banding together of those soldiers who were dissatisfied with the direction the Army was taking, the Army Council set up what it called the IRB in order to counteract the IRAO’s counteractions. These efforts culminated in an ultimatum from one of the Army Council to the new group: “Drop your organisation and we will drop ours.”
The Truth drips with contempt at the idea that the new so-called Irish Republican Brotherhood could ever call itself as such. If it was truly the IRB of old, the reader is asked, why were the IRAO members not advised on its re-organisation, considering how they had been IRB members from before. Clearly, the disgruntled soldiers saw nothing wrong with the reappearance of the IRB, just that they had not been invited to the party.
Also revealing is the language in The Truth. With its talk of the “national ideal” and what should be done for “the Nation”, not to mention the liberal invoking of Michael Collins’ name, the self-righteous, self-assured tone of the IRAO were more than a little reminiscent of that used in the 1923 IRB Constitution. Whatever their differences, the two societies were reading from the same hymn sheet.
A Continuity IRB?
While neither is unpartisan in their accounts, Ó Muirthile’s and the IRAO’s are in agreement in how both groups discussed a merger as a way of resolving the conflict. According to Ó Muirthile, this never got beyond the talking stage due to the same prejudice the IRB showed towards any prospective members who had not held a senior role from before.
The Truth was more detailed about the series of talks and meetings which the IRAO came to believe were merely stalling tactics on the part of the IRB. Mulcahy at one point promised the IRAO places on the IRB Supreme Council. This was not kept. Another meeting between the IRAO and the IRB, the former in the persons of Mulcahy and Ó Muirthile, saw the same promise of representation on the Supreme Council made. When pressed, however, Ó Muirthile admitted that this would only amount to one placement. Once again, even this meagre promise fell through.
It was not until the IRAO saw that the IRB had no intention of releasing even a finger of its grip on Army policy that it concluded that further negotiations were futile and took steps towards what would become the Army Mutiny of 1924. In this, The Truth is almost certainly reliable. For all its self-aggrandising, the IRAO would most likely have been content with a relaxation of the monopoly held by the IRB on the upper echelons of the Army.
This would not have meant the end of the monopoly, however, merely more stakeholders in it. Neither the IRB nor the IRAO disagreed with the issue of control, just who should have the rights to it.
In the resulting inquiry into the Mutiny and the discussions in the Dáil, the IRB was characterised as having been revived or re-organised as if this IRB was a new incarnation of the old. However, there are grounds to believe that this IRB was in fact a continuation of the same. That men like Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy, who had sat on the Supreme Council during the Treaty talks, remained on as senior members of the IRB within the Army to the point of writing the new constitution, suggests that nothing had intended to change.
While there is no reason to disbelieve Ó Muirthile when he said that there had been no meetings of the IRB between January 1922 and the start of 1923, this is more likely due to a lack of opportunity and the confusion brought about the split from the Civil War than the death of the old IRB. That the IRAO mutineers had been IRB members from before the Treaty and had expected the new IRB to continue treating them as insiders suggests that while the pecking order had changed, the mindset of Organisation members had not.
The results of the Mutiny were the ending of the military careers of both the mutineers and the Army Council. Mulcahy was to endure the lambasting of the man he had attempted to deceive, Kevin O’Higgins, who was quick to levy blame on the Army heads who had tried playing at secret societies.
O’Higgins was to describe to the Dáil a very different interpretation to Ó Muirthile’s of the meeting in President Cosgrave’s office on the 10th July 1923. Ó Muirthile was to insist that he had left the meeting confident that everyone was on board with the IRB. But according to O’Higgins, both Ó Muirthile and Mulcahy had at no point specified the IRB as actually in existence. They had instead opaquely described it only as an option. O’Higgins had used the meeting to denounce any revived IRB, option or not, likening it to a Tammany Hall that would make puppets of all in the Dáil.
Or so O’Higgins told the Dáil. It is possible that, like any good public speaker, O’Higgins was tailoring his message to the audience. However, the revived IRB seems to have made no effort to reconnect with its members in the Dáil, being content to keep itself a military franchise. Perhaps Ó Muirthile had been sincere after all when he said that the intention when reviving the IRB was not to subvert the government.
Whether out of myopia or principle, this attitude would cost the Brotherhood dear. Having entwined itself so tightly with the Army, the IRB was unable to survive when expelled from it. There would be no further efforts to resuscitate the Organisation after 1924. Whatever dreams or ambitions it had had for itself, in the new Ireland they would wither on the vine.
Whichever was the more accurate account of that meeting in the President’s office, O’Higgins was to have the last word. Ó Muirthile lost his rank as Quartermaster General. A business venture in Dublin failed, and he returned to his home village in Leap, Work Cork. There, he resumed his previous job as an Irish language teacher, and set to work writing a book. Part memoir, part history and part apologia, it was never published and remains largely forgotten in UCD Archives other than the occasional appearance in a footnote of a more successful book.
Mulcahy was also to lose his position as Commander-in-Chief. He continued in politics but, as late as 1932, the embarrassment of his past associations was used against him. Mulcahy attempted to make additions to the Army Pensions Bill by Fianna Fáil that would have debarred members of certain illegal organisations. By this, Mulcahy meant the IRA, which was then in an informal alliance with the new ruling party. Frank Aiken as Minister for Defence retorted by reminding Mulcahy of the time he had helped to facilitate another certain illegal organisation. Mulcahy’s motion was lost by 65 to 45.
One possible lesson to take from this book is that politics is best left to politicians. Shortly after the 1957 electoral defeat of John A. Costello’s second and final coalition government, the former Taoiseach was walking along the Dublin quays with two other senior Fine Gael men, James Dillon and Patrick Lindsay.
As they passed a pub, Dillon remarked about how he had never been in one except his own which he had sold after observing how much money his customers were spending which could have gone instead into family essentials. Costello chipped in with a story of the one time he had been in a pub when a bottle of orange juice had almost been too much for him.
To the worldlier Lindsay, the pub was “the countryman’s club, where everything is discussed and where contacts are made.” The exchange he had witnessed told him all too much as to why Fine Gael “are going in this direction today and why we are out of touch with the people.”
Also telling was Costello’s subsequent performance as a part-time leader of the opposition. An exceptionally gifted barrister, his success at attracting briefs in Cork – no small achievement for the Dubliner Costello, given how hard it was for outsiders to break into its insular legal world – led to him dividing his time between court hearings there and Dáil attendance in Dublin. Costello was obliged to travel to Cork on one Sunday evening and then return to Dublin on Wednesday evening for a Budget vote before returning to Cork early on Thursday morning.
It was an impressive display of time management – when it could be done. At other times, Costello was forced to prioritise one duty over another, such as when he spent three weeks in Cork with the High Court at the expense of two weeks of Dáil sittings. His party followed his example. Attendance of Fine Gael TDs was poor, and those present often preferred to read quietly or talk amongst themselves. Fianna Fáil could not have asked for a more obliging opposition.
If any study of Fianna Fáil can equate to a study of 20th Irish politics, given the sheer regularity of the party in power (only time will tell if its current malaise will prove to be a passing phase or a more lasting decline), then, by that same token, a look at Ireland’s also-rans can give an insight into what not to do.
While it would be simplistic to attribute Fine Gael’s problems to a reticence towards having a pint or two, its leaders have displayed a remarkably consistency over the years in not missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Enda Kenny’s snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory following his inept 2007 debate with Bertie Ahern, and Alan Duke’s high-minded-but-disastrous ‘Tallaght Strategy’ are two examples that spring to mind.
As the title to McCullagh’s book suggests, Costello was an unusual choice for the top job but then, the 1948 general election produced an unusual government, being an alliance of ‘everyone but Fianna Fáil’. Due to his record of executions during the Civil War, Fine Gael leader Richard Mulcahy was an unacceptable choice for Taoiseach but Labour and Clann na Poblachta were supportive of Costello as a compromise candidate, thanks in no small part to his friendship with leading figures in both parties.
The man of the hour was oblivious to the discussions being made on his behalf and was not pleased when the offer was broached to him. Costello’s aversion stemmed in part to financial considerations. With a family to support, he was reluctant to put aside the money he was making at the Bar for the uncertainty of politics. But his main concern, as he confided to his son and with a humility rarely found in politics, was his lack of self-confidence and the “fear amounting almost to terror that I would be a flop as Taoiseach.”
When his suggested alternatives were brushed away by his colleagues, and faced with their unanimous support (not something every prospective leader can claim), Costello finally gave in. Never one to let things get to his head, Costello responded to the rapturous ovation at the following Fine Gael meeting by pointing at Mulcahy and saying: “This is the man you should be applauding, not me.”
Compared to the likes of Éamon de Valera, who had only to look within his heart to know what the Irish people wanted, or Charles Haughey (enough said), such humility makes for a refreshing change. The question remained, however, as to whether, to steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, the new Taoiseach would have much to be humble about.
The first Inter-Party Government has largely been remembered for two of its initiatives: the Mother and Child Scheme and the 1948 declaration of the Irish Republic. McCullagh treats his subject’s role in both sympathetically but not uncritically.
If Costello was obsequious in his deference to the Church then, as McCullagh reminds us, that was to be entirely expected in those pre-Father Ted times. As for the repeal of the External Relations Act, it finally put paid to a long-standing ambiguity – was Ireland in the Commonwealth or not? – but the abruptness with which Costello announced it and his unnecessarily defensive manner did him no favours.
Costello’s government fell apart by the bare minimum of Dáil seats when a handful of Independent TDs were wooed over to Fianna Fáil. As part of the new cost-cutting policies under Éamon de Valera, Costello lost his state car. A measure of the man can be gauged by how he allowed De Valera to not only keep his when the roles were reversed a couple of years later and it was Fianna Fáil’s turn on the Opposition benches but also the insurance on the exact same terms as before.
The two years before Costello’s return to office was perhaps the highlight of his dual careers as barrister and politician. As the former, Costello defended The Leader journal against the libel suit by the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Costello’s victory for his client after the devastating cross-examination against Kavanagh on the stand did not deter the two from becoming friends.
The Kavanagh case is one of the few times McCullagh detours into Costello’s legal work. Charles Lysaght has criticised the book in the Irish Independent for this abridgement, pointing out how Costello had been Ireland’s leading barrister in the 1930s to the early ‘50s. But then, how many readers would be as interested in Costello the lawyer as they would be in Costello the statesman?
On the public stage, Costello was able to hammer away at his enemies’ austerity measures (as popular then as today) until a succession of by-election defeats for the government forced a general election. That the outgoing Fianna Fáil administration had been briefer than Costello’s (who was not above highlighting such a fact) was sweet vindication against those who had griped that such a hybrid as a coalition government could never last.
But gaining power is not the same as handling it. The economic gloom deepened, prompting a reverse situation from before, with the Inter-Party Government losing ground through lost by-elections. Already depressed by the death of his wife, Costello adopted an increasingly impervious note: “I have had so many disappointments that one more does not make any difference.”
The one that did was the use of the Irish Army and Gardai against resurgent IRA violence along the Border. The staunchly Republican Clann na Poblachta, who had been propping up the government as before, responded with a vote of no confidence.
Ironies abounded. Costello had always despised Partition to the point of being rude to some hapless RUC officers who were rescuing his car from a flooded road while he was on holiday in the North. Seán MacBride had initially demurred from the censure motion until pressure from his party forced his hand. He feared that a rebounding De Valera would be even harder on the IRA – which, of course, he was. McCullaugh quotes one Republican activist who was interned throughout the subsequent Fianna Fáil administration that at least under Costello he had been assured of a fair trial.
With no choice but to call a general election, Costello kept a brave face amidst the crushing defeat, with the Soldiers of Destiny snagging 78 out of the 147 seats on offer. McCullagh is brutally frank about the scale of Fine Gael’s disaster and Costello’s lacklustre leadership when back in opposition but he makes the case that many of the initiatives Seán Lemass would be celebrated for – the economic revival and his glasnost towards the North – had had their roots under Costello.
This book is well-written, flowing smoothly from one subject to another. The research is impeccable, allowing readers to gain a strong sense of the times as well as of the players involved. The central one here is, of course, Costello, managing his colleagues with skill, events perhaps less so. Costello was suited more to the private life of a barrister than a public one as a politician. Yet he was able to succeed at both and his dual terms as Taoiseach, regardless of his fears, left an enduring mark on Irish politics.
Fascists these days are a mealy-mouthed lot. Not racist but racialist. Not hating another race but loving your own.
So it is almost refreshing to encounter some who were upfront about what they were about. Formed in 1942 while their fellow fascists on the Continent were in the ascendant, Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (“Architects of the Resurrection”) had a set of policies that were as grandiose as its name:
Irish democracy to be replaced by a one-party totalitarian state (said party being itself, of course).
The use of English to be criminalised in favour of Irish.
A united Ireland to be achieved by the raising of a massive conscript army that would swamp Northern Ireland into submission.
The encouragement of women to swell the Irish race with as many progeny as they could manage, the earlier the better (how else is that massive conscript army going to be formed?).
Too bad if none of this strikes the reader as appealing, as emigration would also be banned. One has to give Ailtirí credit at least for not resorting to the usual Irish solution to social problems.
Despite its avowedly fascist worldview, Ailtirí did not see itself as simply a potato-eating version of those found in Germany and Italy. Instead, it held a far grander ambition: by remaining aloof from the War until the belligerents had worn themselves out, Ireland would be in the prime position to re-spiritualise a materialistic Europe and assume the mantle of leadership over a Christian world order.
The study of a political party can read like a biography: it will have its beginning and often an end, a distinct character that stands it out from the rest, likes and dislikes, and sometimes a rise and a fall. Ailtirí had a promising start before spluttering into oblivion but then, political failures can be as interesting as the successes, especially if the reader is of a morbid disposition. Parties on the far-right spectrum, in particular, can have the appeal of a car-wreck: grisly but you slow down to gawp all the same.
Perhaps it is the type of personality they attract. Not that left-wing groups do not feature their own sort of deviant – Ken Livingstone’s 2012 memoir records the Machiavellian manoeuvrings of the various Trotskyite factions he was part of with a little too much relish – but the fascistic ones do seem to draw more than their fair share of ambitions and egos inflated to levels that are almost Shakespearean. That is, if Shakespeare was a fruitcake.
The opening chapter explores the uneasy position democracy had within post-Treaty Ireland with its legacy of civil war and executions, Blueshirts battling against Republicans, and the widespread idea that an autocratic system like those used so successfully on the Continent might be preferable to godless Marxism. The reviewer is not completely convinced by the direction of this chapter – seen in another light, Irish democracy could appear to have been impressively robust – but it is, as with the rest of the book, an impressively researched piece.
Douglas next explores the pro-German sympathies prominent in Ireland on the eve of the Second World War that only grew with the strings of victories by the Nazi state that seemed about to consign democracy to the dustbin of history. The author then narrows his focus onto the political evolution of the party founder, Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, the closest the book has to a recurring character besides the party itself.
Born Gerald Cunningham in Belfast, 1910, he worked as a tax clerk in the Irish Department of Finance before resigning when refused leave to improve his Irish. Having immersed himself in a Gaeltacht and emerging as a committed Gaelic revivalist, the newly renamed Ó Cuinneagáin worked first as an editorial writer and then as a tax consultant before taking his first step into political thought.
After flirting with first an underground pro-German group and then with the Gaelic League – where he excelled as an organiser before his outspoken politics proved a mite strong for the League’s genteel elders – Ó Cuinneagáin felt confident enough to form his own party, one that he could have to himself and play the role of leader, or Ceannaire as the budding fuhrer was styled. All that was left was to make a lot of speeches, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable bestowment of supreme power.
Ailtirí was not to be another mere party but a vanguard for a Christian revival. Still, it had to abide by the nuts-and-bolts realities that every political group must go through, such as the management of its regional branches (many of whom would withhold knowledge of their full strength to avoid the extortionate 75% tithe on their membership fees by the Dublin HQ), the maintenance of self-imposed standards (the rule against holding party meetings in public houses being commonly ignored as the local pub in some rural areas was often the only place large enough), and time commitments on the part of activists (senior ones often travelling considerable distances to speak at branch events).
While Douglas’ book hardly invites admiration for its subject, it is still incredible that Ailtirí worked at all, let alone as well as it did. Enthusiasm among members for the party ideals remained high enough not to be deterred by their inept performance in the 1943 general election. It was the repeated failure in the 1944 one, however, that led party activists to wonder if they would be better off under a different ceannaire.
Ó Cuinneagáin was, as Douglas describes, the party’s best asset and worst liability. While an effective organiser, his inability to delegate responsibility – and power – meant that the future of Ailtirí was always going to be held hostage to the Ceannaire’s increasingly obvious flaws.
Ó Cuinneagáin appears to have been of that breed of ambitious politicians who either enter a small political scene or, upon failing to find one, create their own. Their competency level is at a reasonable but unexceptional level, allowing them the success that would otherwise have eluded them in a more mainstream party but leaving them vulnerable to themselves when it comes to competing on a national stage. Nick Griffin’s meltdown on BBC’s Question Time in 2009 is the most notable example of this political Peter Principle at work.
While Ó Cuinneagáin avoided anything quite so public, his inflexible and dogmatic approach to leadership led to the 1945 resignations of some of Ailtirí’s ablest members and what Brendan Behan described as the first item on the agenda of any Irish committee: the split. In disarray and with the recently formed Clann na Poblachta encroaching on its share of the protest vote, Ailtirí made the lightest of impacts on the 1948 general election.
Even then, Ó Cuinneagáin did not give up: on the morning of 14th May 1949, the inhabitants of Dublin and other large towns awoke to find Ailtirí posters exhorting them to “Arm Now to Take the North.” The heavy-handed response by the Gardaí in tearing down the posters provided Ailtirí with a propaganda boon, and the whole affair seems to have partly convinced the British Cabinet of an imminent invasion of Northern Ireland.
But the lack of follow-up by Ailtirí proved to many that the party was all talk and no action. Even an attempt later in the year to upstage the annual Armistice Day dance in Dublin with a riot failed to stem the haemorrhaging of members.
One of the stalwarts remaining was Liam Creagh who, when not a drinking companion to Brendan Behan, helped sell the Ailtirí newspaper and occasionally drink the proceeds away. The relationship between Creagh and Ó Cuinneagáin came to resemble, as Douglas describes with his keen eye for human folly, a “dysfunctional marriage”, though Creagh was not the most damaged individual in Ailtirí, that dubious distinction being held by Raymond Moulton Sean O’Brien, a self-proclaimed ‘Prince of Thormond’ and compulsive child molester. The best that can be said for many far-right groups is that all human life is there.
Ailtirí shrank away until its newsletter was the only part of it left, a party broadsheet without a party. The newspaper enjoyed surprisingly healthy sales throughout the 1950s and 1960s – Ó Cuinneagáin appears to have been far more skilled as a publisher than as a politician or thinker – but by the next decade, its publishing costs proved too much even for the indefatigable Ó Cuinneagáin, and it was wrapped up in 1975. The one-time Ceannaire died in 1990, still insisting that Ailtirí’s day might yet come.
While destined to go down in history as a footnote, and a peculiar one at that, Douglas is at pains to stress how Ailtirí’s ideology was not all that incompatible with popular opinion in Ireland at the time, with its pro-Axis sympathies even after the full extent of Nazi atrocities had been exposed, and the latent anti-Semitism in public life (it is unsurprising to learn that the Jew-baiting blowhard Oliver J. Flanagan was happy to field questions on behalf of Ailtirí in the Daíl).
However, unlike Martin Pugh’s study on fascism in Britain at the same time, Hurrah for the Blackshirts! (2005), in which half the chapters seemed to be dedicated to peripheral subjects, Douglas is able to provide the necessary cultural context while keeping the attention on the main subject. That Douglas is an entertaining writer who knows how to bring his subject to life makes for an absorbing as well as informative read.
Judging W.T. Cosgrave is the third in the Judging X series and the first to be on a non-Fianna Fáil figure, the previous two being about Éamon de Valera and Seán Lemass. The book launch was notable in the presence of the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny; likewise, the one for Judging Dev in 2007 was attended by Bertie Ahern: statements in themselves about how Civil War politics continues to define the contemporary sort in Ireland. It is hard, after all, to imagine either of the two party leaders ‘crossing the floor’ by attending the other book launch. Cosgrave, de Valera and Lemass may be long dead, but the ghosts of their wars continue to be felt today.
History has judged Cosgrave to be something of a ghost himself. After all, this book had to have Cosgrave’s full name in the title, as opposed to de Valera needing only Dev for his.
Perhaps it was due to being sandwiched between the overwhelming presences of Michael Collins and de Valera, or people equating his calm, judicious manner with a lack of charisma. A mocking cartoon from 1927 that features in Laffan’s book as a double-spread is of a sleepy-looking Cosgrave painting a portrait of himself in a ridiculously heroic pose.
Such mild appearances were deceiving. Upon the sudden deaths of Arthur Griffith and Collins in 1922, the newly-chosen chairman of the Free State cabinet found himself with the unenviable task of heading a government under siege. His enemies were initially contemptuous: de Valera dismissed him as a “ninny”, while Rory O’Connor courted hubris in believing that Cosgrave could be “easily scared to clear out.”
But they had badly underestimated Cosgrave’s spine which, when stiffened, could be a fearsome thing. The executions of Anti-Treatyite prisoners, including that of the cocksure O’Connor, shook the Civil War opposition enough for its previous policy of targeting Dáil deputies to be abandoned.
Cosgrave was bothered by the official use of the term ‘reprisal’ and its connotations with the Black-and-Tans, but otherwise he complained at how the state executions had been limited to a few counties, leading to the mistaken impression that the rest of Ireland was peaceful. Any failure to implement such strategic executions, in his opinion, was the equivalent of losing a battle. The Civil War was a life-or-death struggle for the newborn Free State, and Cosgrave was not going to allow the “dregs of society”, as he came to call the other side, to get in the way of running a country.
What is striking, while reading this book, is the extent that state policies reflected Cosgrave’s personal inclinations. With the Irish language, he was game, and his government took steps to make it compulsory. But his own was never more than patchy and went no further than signing the minutes of Cumann na nGaedheal meetings in Irish. Even this token gesture was dropped after the party lost power in 1932 and he switched to signing them in English. He may have liked to talk about the Gaelicization of Ireland, but lacked the commitment to enforce anything substantial, much like the country in general.
In any case, Cosgrave was more interested in balancing the books. He told Cumann na nGaedheal members that their priorities were to ensure “an ordered society, hard work, constant endeavour”, among others, and these Spartan tastes were reflected in the fiscal conservatism of his government.
Similarly, the Free State’s policy of integration towards ex-Unionists was as much a reflection of Cosgrave’s moderate instincts as it was a need to build a working Ireland with as much support as it could get.
The choices of state symbolism are the most fun to read, probably as much as they were for the cabinet to discuss: the artist designing the pig that was to feature on the half-penny coin was requested to reduce the fullness of its jowls. Why this should be important is not stated. One is minded of a trainspotters’ convention or the debates of Tolkien enthusiasts on whether the Balrog had wings.
Other choices on symbols are all too illuminating: the official seal of state would be a harp but not one, God forbid, with a female figure included. Catholic morality was the order of the day. Cosgrave saw to it that the new coinage would feature only ‘profane’ images, as opposed to religious ones, given the worldly ways money could be used. This was still too much for one priest who ruminated against the coins as “the thin edge of the wedge of Freemasonry sunk into the very life of our Catholicity.” Quite.
This priest was not to be the only clergyman vocal on how the state should be run. An eager-to-please, almost servile consideration to what the Church hierarchy thought was to be a regular feature of Cumann na nGaedheal. Particularly disturbing for this reviewer to learn was Cosgrave’s proposal in February 1921 of a ‘Theological Board’ as an additional house of the Dáil, whose role would be to debate whether any proposed legislation would be “contrary to Faith and Morals.”
By Faith, this, of course, meant the Catholic one. Mercifully, his fellow cabinet members thought this was a step too far, but if Ireland had avoided the route to theocracy it would still become one in all but name under Cumann na nGaedheal and its successor governments.
Laffan reminds his readers that no government then could have defied the Church and survived, and indeed none did until very recently. Even so, whether it was proposing to Dublin Corporation as early as 1915 that it work with the Dublin Vigilance Committee on the subject of objectionable films or the Archbishop of Dublin being sent on request an advance copy of the 1922 draft constitution, Cosgrave was only too happy to oblige.
In fairness to the man, he did his best to resist the worst examples of fanaticism, such as the case of Letitia Dunbar-Harrison, the Mayo librarian refused a position due to her Protestantism. Even if Cosgrave ultimately had to resort to the strategic retreat of transferring Dunbar-Harrison out of Mayo and into the Department of Defence, his attitude that “we Catholics ought not to fear Protestants”, however plaintive, was in favourable contrast to de Valera’s opportunistic support for the Mayo sectarianism. Dunbar-Harrison, for all that, only held her new post in the Department of Defence briefly, as she soon married and was thus obliged to resign, another sign of the times that makes us lucky to be in the present one.
As for the Blueshirts, Cosgrave’s interest in them was limited to their strategic, not ideological value, a “prospect of achieving unity against de Valera.” Certainly, it is hard to imagine a man who was content with a democratic transition of power at his expense having much sympathy with totalitarianism. Unlike some of his Fine Gael colleagues, he disdained wearing the Blueshirt uniform in the Dáil, and kept a cautious distance from Eoin O’Duffy even while obliged to publicly praise his party leader on occasion.
As opposition leader, the same calm, unpretentious traits that had served him well as a nation-builder came to be seen as liabilities in an increasingly stagnate and directionless party. Laffan makes no excuses for Cosgrave’s later failures as Fine Gael leader, leaving the reader to watch as the hero fades away into a not-so-golden sunset of political irrelevance.
His death in 1965 was met with indifference by the Fianna Fáil government who did not even bother to send a representative to the funeral. A notable exceptional was Seán Lemass, who praised in the Dáil the “privations and sacrifices which he endured so that national freedom might be ours.”
In many ways, as Laffan notes, the two men were kindred spirits to the point, it was claimed, of Lemass modelling his style of debate Cosgrave’s. Both were quick to praise the practical qualities in the other – practicality being amongst the highest of virtues for both – and both their respective governments sought to be meritocracies rather than the usual clientelism of parish-pump politics.
Yet Lemass has been highly regarded to this day while Cosgrave is remembered, when he is at all, with not much more than polite respect. Perhaps Cosgrave had been in the wrong party after all, and would have belonged more in Fianna Fáil where his talents could have been better realised? Or is that a ‘step across the room’ too far to contemplate?