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

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

‘Mr Nolan’

Sometime in early 1921, Frank Robbins paid a visit to 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin, the home of the Mellows family. He had called on them several times already since his return from the United States of America, hoping to find that his friend Liam had likewise come back.

Robbins was unsurprised to see the Union Jack prominently displayed on the mantelpiece, knowing that Mellows Senior had been an officer in the British Army. Liam had appeared set to follow in his father’s footsteps when enrolled as a cadet at the Military Academy in Phoenix Park, but he ended up taking a very different course in life. Robbins attributed this to the influence of the family matriarch, a Wexford woman with some notably republican viewpoints.

The Mellows address at 21 Mountshannon Road, Dublin

On that occasion, Sarah Mellows gave her guest an address not too far from Mountshannon Road, with instructions to ask for a Mr Nolan. Such cloak-and-dagger games were nothing new to Robbins, by now a seasoned revolutionary in the Irish Citizen Army. He had been trying for a while now to bring it and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) together on a more cooperative basis, albeit with little success.

When Robbins arrived at the address, he found that the man calling himself ‘Mr Nolan’ was not anyone he knew. He understood enough to leave some telling details with the stranger, including where to find him. Sure enough, a few days later, Liam Mellows dropped by Robbins’ house, in time to lend a helping hand with his infant daughter.

The second time Mellows came was on the 25th May 1921, the day the IRA set fire to the Custom House by the Liffey. He was dressed in feminine attire, a choice of disguise which had served him well when fleeing the country in the wake of the 1916 Rising, wearing a nun’s habit.

The nun’s veil Mellows wore while disguised as a nun, now in the National Museum of Ireland

This time, the pretence was less convincing. Robbins was not home, and his sister refused to admit the peculiar visitor until Mrs Robbins, who had nursed Mellows when he was sick in New York, vouched for him. Mellows had come to ask Robbins about that day’s casualties, as the Dublin IRA, despite the success of their operation, had had many of its combatants taken prisoner by British forces in a botched withdrawal from the burning Custom House.

The burning of the Custom House, Dublin, on the 25th May 1921

Mellows and Robbins were good friends as well as comrades-in-arms, having struggled together in the byzantine politics of Irish-America, and now bound in a common cause for national freedom. But that did not mean they always agreed. While discussing matters one day in Sackville (now O’Connell) Street, Robbins asked after Michael Collins, Mellows’ colleague in the IRA GHQ.

“Oh, he pays too many visits to pubs,” Mellows replied.

Frank Robbins

Robbins was shocked at this casual disrespect and said as much. Didn’t Mellows know, Robbins said, that pubs were the safest places for Collins to conduct his business?

As Mellows apologised profusely, Robbins saw that his brusque manner had upset him. Confused at why his friend would say something so mean and out of character, Robbins could only hope that this would not be the start of something.[1]

A Soldier’s Heart

If Mellows was frustrated, then he had much to feel frustrated about. He had led men before with a gun in hand, when the Galway Volunteers rose up during the Easter Week of 1916, but now, as the IRA Director of Purchases, his war was to be a very different one, a battleground of logistics, paperwork and meetings.

0619All of which went against his desire to be in the thick of things and, throughout the War of Independence, “his eyes turned longingly towards the ‘Flying Columns’ in the hills of Ireland,” remembered Mary Flannery Woods, a close friend:

But though he dallied with the idea of joining one of them, he recognised that his duty lay in the line his ability demanded – organisation – and he with a soldier’s heart, stifled his longing and ‘kept to his last’.[2]

The first time Mrs Woods met Mellows was in November 1920, shortly after his return from the United States. He came to her house at 131 Morehampton Road in Donnybrook, Dublin, walking straight into the hall without a word, and then asking for ‘Mr Quinn’. That was the name that Seán Etchingham, the Wexford TD and IRA man, went by.

Barney Mellows

Despite the stranger’s brusqueness, Wood gave him the benefit of the doubt on the basis of his resemblance to Barney Mellows, a prominent IRA member, and brought him upstairs to where Etchingham was hiding. She “knew by Seán’s shout of welcome that I had made no mistake” – after, Barney and Liam were brothers.

Number 131 Morehampton Road was an open house for ‘on the runs’ like Mellows and Etchingham. Mellows used it as his base of operations, staying for periods of six weeks or less until his duties as Director of Purchases called him away to assist with smuggled shipments of illicit weaponry. Woods would drive him in the mornings to Kingsbridge Station to take the first train out, with Mellows posing as a businessman, complete with a copy of the Irish Times tucked under his arm, and his distinctly fair hair and moustache darkened the night before with dye.[3]

Sometimes there would be hauls coming, sometimes not. Mellows learned to diversify his dealings – a shop in Liverpool was one regular supplier, while Woods once saw a furniture suite that had come in from America, loaded with guns. Mellows was careful not to bring any of these procurements to 131 Morehampton Road, relying instead on a network of agents to distribute them to the rest of the IRA.

131 Morehampton Road, Dublin

Even in the gunrunning lull-times, work never ceased, as couriers were forever dropping by Morehampton Road. When Mellows was out – as he often was, sometimes not returning before the early hours of 4 or 5 am – Woods would hide their dispatches until he was back. If someone was waiting for a response, Mellows took the time to talk to them, sometimes doing so until dawn, after which he would grab an hour or two of sleep before resuming another day’s business.[4]

Cathal Brugha

In the event of money being delivered, Woods would issue a receipt for the IRA GHQ, allowing Mellows to keep track of the flow of orders and purchases in a notebook. Finances were the ultimate responsibility of the Minister for Defence, Cathal Brugha, who ran a tight ship, fiscally speaking, and would – so Mellows bemoaned to Woods – “sit all night with his mouth like a rat trap over half a crown if it went wrong.”[5]

Another GHQ colleague who Mellows did not entirely get along with was Collins. The IRA Director of Intelligence was intruding too much on Mellows’ sphere of responsibility for his liking:

[Mellows] said he was interfering with his job as Director of Purchases by buying arms across the water and paying more for them than he was. He was buying them, he said, not to use them but to prevent him (Liam) from getting them.

As a close friend of both men, Woods was saddened to hear this. That Mellows was among the most good-natured of men made the revelation – “that Mick and Liam were not in each other’s confidences” – all the harder.[6]

Michael Collins

The Scottish Connection

Another cause for doubt was the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB). Mellows had been an inductee since before the Easter Rising – indeed, he had helped facilitate the underground fraternity in many parts of the country. The IRB continued, running parallel to the IRA, with which it shard many members, as well as the same revolutionary goals, but its secretive nature and lack of accountability made some wary.

When the Supreme Council of the IRB issued a circular in late 1920, asking for all its initiates to trust in any changes about to be made, Seamus Reader asked Mellows what this meant:

He told me that there would be another circular sent out and warned me that there was hedging going on, that there was danger of a split. He asked me to make sure this would not occur in Scotland. He did not give me any further information about the trouble.[7]

No trouble occurred in Scotland, at least where the IRB was concerned. As one of the IRA’s sources for weapons – with Reader responsible for over a hundred detonators shipped to Dublin in 1917 – the country was an important strategic base, and one that merited Mellows’ personal attention.[8]

By then the IRA Director of Organisation for Scotland, Reader was summoned to a meeting in Glasgow on the 3rd May 1921. He found several others, there including Mellows and D.P. Walsh, the GHQ purchaser for Scotland since 1920. Walsh was explaining to Mellows that some of the Glasgow Brigade were set on rescuing Frank Carty, who had been arrested while seeking to purchase arms for the Sligo IRA, from police custody.

C96 Mauser, dubbed ‘Peter the Painter’, a gun commonly used by the IRA

Obviously displeased at what he was hearing, Mellows asked Reader for his views. Reader began by saying that he knew nothing about such plans, before making his opinion clear to Mellows. As the Scottish police were an unarmed police force, any attack on them, he warned, would endanger what support Irish republicanism had among the general public.

Mellows was evidently of like mind, as he strongly advised Walsh against any such efforts, citing the disruption an official backlash would have on their arms-running. But Walsh insisted that it was too late to call it off, so determined were the Glaswegian Volunteers to save Carty.

Reader suggested a compromise: that the rescue be delayed until Carty had been handed over to the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) escort which would be coming over to bring him to trial in Ireland. Walsh agreed to this and promised to pass it on later that night at another meeting where the rescue plans were to be finalised.

With the issue seemingly settled, Mellows asked the others for an account of the munitions collected so far. Reader said that they were unsure but he would look into it and tell Mellows the following night.

The next day, shortly after noon, Reader received the alarming news that the armed attempt to spring Carty had been carried out after all, resulting in the death of a Scottish policeman and the wounding of another. In the resulting wave of police raids, as Mellows and Reader had feared, several arms dumps were uncovered and nearly all the men responsible for their purchases arrested, including Walsh.

Glasgow Cross, 1910

Reader was among those picked up, though he was released when the murder charge against him, on account of the slain policeman, was dropped. After avoiding Mellows for fear of leading the police to him, he was able to see him again at a subsequent meeting. Mellows told him he had to leave Scotland and appointed Reader to take immediate charge.

An emergency session was called for all the Scottish IRA officers still at liberty. There, it was arranged that the remaining supplies be gathered in a safe-house, and then shipped over to Ireland, ending up mostly in the hands of the South Tipperary Brigade.[9]

Members of the South Tipperary Flying Column

Breathing Space

Many of the other arms-running operations were similarly hit-and-miss. As Eamon Dore, an intelligence officer in the Limerick IRA, remembered:

Just before the Truce, Liam Mellows, whom I knew of old, called on me in connection with a scheme he was engaged on at the time – to smuggle arms through the port of Limerick.

He had enlisted the aid of a Customs Officer named Cullinan, and the arrangements were just completed when the Truce came. Some arms actually did come in during the Truce through this arrangement, but nothing of any great consequence.[10]

Shortly after the Truce of July 1921, a crowd of the revolutionary elite met in Vaughan’s Hotel, Dublin, to see Harry Boland off to America. The attendees – which included Collins, Mellows, Rory O’Connor, Liam Tobin, Frank Thornton and Etchingham – were in a celebratory mood, with Collins reciting Kelly, Burke and Shea, while Mellows sung the old Scottish song, McDonnell of the Glens.[11]

Vaughan’s Hotel, Parnell Square, Dublin

But beneath the good cheer lurked a feeling that the Truce would prove only a temporary reprieve. “Many more of us will die before an Irish Republic is recognised,” Mellows remarked.[12]

It would prove to be a prescient statement, though he was almost certainly assuming that any such deaths would be from against the British. He was not alone in such fatalism. In Co. Cork, Liam Lynch, O/C of the First Southern Division, believed that the ceasefire would last no more than three or four months, and planned accordingly.[13]

Mellows was similarly concerned with making the most of the available time. He was now assisted in his duties by Una Daly, the sister of an IRA member who had introduced her to Mellows. The two men had been trying together to ship arms from Liverpool, when Mellows asked if Una would do some secretarial tasks for him.

She took up work in 131 Morehampton Road, sometimes sleeping in the room Mrs Wood had put at their disposal as an office. Daly typed for Mellows, doing her best to keep up with his indefatigable pace, and once stayed up two whole nights to finish the latest workload before them.[14]

Charlie McGuinness

Mellows, she noticed, was receiving a lot of callers from England and Scotland. More unusual were the six visitors from Hamburg, Germany, who came over on a boat captained by Charlie McGuinness, one of Mellows’ most active gun-runners. Two of them stayed at the Woods home, where they passed the time by singing German songs.

Despite the efforts of their hosts to put them at ease – including a trip to the Gaiety Theatre for a Shakespeare play – and the relative calm in the city during the Truce, one seemed particularly on edge. A model of discretion, Daly did not inquire as to who these foreign gentlemen were or why they were there at all.[15]

The Landing in Waterford

As the Sinn Féin TD for Waterford City, Dr Vincent White was visiting Dublin in the autumn of 1921 when he met Mellows. The IRA Director of Purchases appeared “very pre-occupied” and with good reason, for he confided in White about the shipment of munitions that were due from Germany. As the Waterford coast had been decided upon as the best landing site, at either Helvick Head or near Ardmore, Mellows told White that he would be relying on him for his cooperation in landing the guns safely and then transferring them to their prepared dumps in the Comeragh Mountains.

Vincent White, in the robes of the Mayor of Waterford

This caught White by surprise, particularly since, as he pointed out to Mellows, his home in Waterford City was over thirty miles from both Helvick Head and Ardmore. As Mellows was not one to take ‘no’ for an answer, White finally agreed to take charge of his end of the operation. “This time, I was certainly getting a new type of job,” he noted dryly.

The only details he knew for sure was that a Captain McGuinness, so Mellows told him, would be the name of the skipper of the gun-running ship. White was leaving his house on Broad Street, Waterford, on the 11th November 1921 when a stranger approached him to ask if he was Dr White. He affirmed that he was and, guessing the other man’s identity, asked in turn if he was McGuinness.

Appearing relieved at this recognition, Charlie McGuinness confirmed that he was and explained his plight. He had been sailing off the coast for the past few days on the Frieda, looking for a signal that was supposed to appear but never did, and exhausting himself in the process. The lack of food and water had forced him to disembark, with his vessel left hidden in a creek off the Little Island in the Suir.

Little Island in the River Suir, Co. Waterford

White let him have a much-needed sleep in his house. When McGuinness awoke, considerably refreshed, the two discussed their plan of action. White would contact the O/C of the Waterford City IRA Battalion, and have him arrange for lorries and cars to take the arms from the Frieda to the Comeragh Mountains. McGuinness would lie low in White’s house until the night, which was a wet, drizzling one, and all the better for the cover the weather would provide.

McGuinness and White were rowed by a friend of the latter downriver, the darkness dotted by the lighted windows of the houses about them, until they reached the beached Frieda, where the German crew were waiting with their cargo. The rest of the proceedings went ahead like clockwork. The requisite men and vehicles had been assembled, and the guns were removed from the ship’s hull.

White and McGuinness watched with satisfaction as the last of the lorries climbed up the hills, laden with weapons, before the two men returned to Broad Street. White was to remember that night with pride: “It was the second successful gun-running exploit following the landing of arms at Howth a year before the Rising of 1916.” Fittingly, Mellows had been involved in that earlier one as well.[16]

IRA members

McGuinness continued on to Dublin with his crew. The Germans soon proved to be something of a nuisance, as no one knew what to do with them. Having given up on McGuinness as drowned, Mellows was delighted to see him again, though enraged to learn of the laxity of the Waterford IRA in failing to send the appropriate signals to the Frieda.[17]

Regardless of such failings, the rearmed IRA was in a better position than ever to resume the war with Britain – that is, until the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty on the 6th December 1921 turned such certainty on its head, forcing each and every participant in the revolutionary movement to evaluate exactly where they stood.

Like Stars of Constancy

Mellows was to make his own feelings on the issue abundantly clear when he bumped into Robbins on Sackville Street on the 7th December 1921, the day after the Treaty was announced. Mellows was accompanied by Séumas Robinson, a leading IRA officer in Tipperary, and a third man whose name Robbins had forgotten by the time he penned his memoirs, in which he recalled how:

The conversation had hardly opened when Mellows, with a great deal of emotion, left no doubt as to his views on the Treaty. He made statements to the effect that John Redmond could have got better terms without firing a shot.

As Redmond’s reputation was only a little better than Dermot MacMurrough’s as far as any good Irish freedom fighter was concerned, Robbins considered this statement a highly unfair one, given the hard-fought circumstances in which the Irish plenipotentiaries had put their names to the Treaty. He tried persuading Mellows to take a more reasonable approach, as he saw it, but a street pavement is rarely the best place for a constitutional debate, and the conversation ended inclusively between the two comrades.

Robbins recalled an earlier talk he had had in New York, in which Mellows declared that the road to Irish freedom would not be an easy one. The pair could agree on that at least.[18]

National Concert Hall, Dublin

Before the Treaty could be accepted in full, it required ratification by Dáil Éireann. That elective body had usually gathered in Dublin at the Mansion House, inside its Round Room, a large circular annex that possessed the suitable gravitas for such august occasions. But, with the Mansion House now festooned with Christmas holly and other seasonal decorations, it was decided that the classically-columned University College would provide a more appropriately solemn venue to hold the debates.

Its limitations would quickly grow apparent to Robert Briscoe. Although not a TD and thus ineligible to contribute, Briscoe attended almost every one of the sessions that took place from December 1921 to January, becoming an expert on the merits of the College. He found acoustics to be negligible due to the low ceiling, and that the long length of the narrow room ensured it was hard to see as well as hear any speakers on the other end.

Inside the National Concert Hall, where the debates were held

Not that Briscoe had any difficulty understanding his friend when it came to his turn to speak as the TD for Galway:

Liam Mellows! I remember him standing there facing that long room, square and sturdy, with his gold hair lighting the gloom and his blue eyes like stars of constancy.[19]

Reporters attending the show were similarly smitten. “With fair hair brushed back, rugged countenance lit up by profound conviction and a rather discordant voice vibrating with the intensity of his beliefs,” wrote one.[20]

Letting the Situation Develop

Beforehand, while the Dáil debates were enfolding, Mellows had met with a number of like-minded souls, each one a high-ranking IRA officer, at 71 Heytesbury Street. Like 131 Morehampton Road, it had long served as a sanctuary for ‘on the runs’. There, the Delaney family tried to be of good cheer until, sensing the need for privacy, they withdrew for the night, leaving the drawing room to their guests.

Ernie O’Malley

Staring at the others across the polished table, Ernie O’Malley (O/C of the Second Southern Division) was struck by their appearance:  a sombre Rory O’Connor (Director of Engineering), his black hair streaked with grey; Liam Lynch (O/C of the First Southern Division), fidgeting with his glasses while muttering to himself; a dishevelled Séumas Robinson (O/C of the South Tipperary Brigade), a clenched fist held to his chin. O’Malley felt as bad as the others looked, wanting nothing better than to cry from frustration at the thought of the Treaty being imposed on them.

Only Mellows, their Director of Purchases, was unfazed, appearing “energetic, business-like, efficient, anxious to settle down to work”, in contrast to the gloom of the rest.

As the group chewed over their options, it became apparent as to why Mellows was so at ease. “Let the situation develop,” he declared. “The Republican Army will never stomach the Treaty.”

Séumas Robinson

He had been sitting through the Dáil sessions, but with no doubt as to where the final decision would lie. The others were not so sure. O’Connor wanted to break away from GHQ, dominated now by Treaty supporters, as soon as the debates were done. Robinson and O’Malley liked the sound of that, though the latter admitted his doubts as to who else they could trust to follow them. Lynch voiced no strong opinion either way.

Without a clear consensus, it was agreed to wait and see how things developed, keeping in contact with each other all the while. O’Connor then cracked a joke, and soon the cabal were enjoying a more genial evening, the weight of responsibility lifted off their shoulders, at least temporarily.[21]

The Fear of the People

Mellows was as every bit as energetic, business-like and efficient as before as he addressed his fellow Dáil delegates in the University College:

I have very little to say on this subject that is before us, because I stand definitely against this so-called Treaty and the arguments in favour of acceptance—of compromise, of departing from the straight road, of going off the path, and the only path that I believe this country can travel to its freedom.

To the disappointment of those who took Mellows at face value about having little to say, he launched into a speech of not-inconsiderate length. For him, all the talk he had been hearing about the Treaty as a ‘stepping stone’ towards the Republic was absurd, for such a thing already existed. Anyone arguing otherwise was putting the cart before the horse, for “there is the Irish Republic existing, not a mandate to seek a step towards an Irish Republic that does not exist.”

Mellows urged his audience to face facts. After all, “we are not afraid of the facts. The facts are that the Irish Republic exists. People are talking to-day of the will of the people when the people themselves have been stampeded.” Those advocating the Treaty were not doing so on account of its merits. Instead, they “are in favour of the Treaty because they fear what is to happen if it be rejected. That is not the will of the people – that is the fear of the people.”

Liam Mellows speaking at Bodenstown, June 1922

The will of the people, Mellows continued, had already been expressed three years ago, at the first session of the Dáil Éireann in January 1919, and that had been for the declaration of the Republic:

The Irish people have, thanks be to God, the tradition of coming out and speaking their true selves no matter how many times they may be led astray. Has the whole object of this fight and struggle in Ireland been to secure peace? Peace we have preached to us here day in and day out – peace, peace, peace –

“Peace with honour,” another delegate interjected.

“Yes, that is what we want,” Mellows replied. “We do not want peace with surrender, and we do not want peace with dishonour. If peace was the only object why, I say, was this fight ever started?”

Peace with Honour

It was not just a question for the present, but of the future as well. A peace brought about by the Treaty would result in no such thing, “because there will be restless souls in the country who will not be satisfied under this Free State to make peace in this Free State possible.”[22]

For an awestruck Briscoe, Mellows “spoke like a prophet”, his warning all too true in the unsettled era to come.[23]

Had he lived, Mellows would not have been surprised at all. Any unity the country had had for the past few years, as he lectured the Dáil, had been on the basis of the Republic:

Destroy that basis and you cannot have unity. Once you take yourselves off that pedestal you place yourselves in a position to pave the way for concession after concession, for compromise after compromise. Once you begin to juggle with your mind or conscience in this matter God knows where you will end, no matter how you try to pull up later on.[24]

As he neared the end, Mellows apologised for the duration of his address. He attributed it to how strongly he felt, since ideas kept leaping to mind as he talked. For him, it was a matter of ideals:

…for which one has struggled and fought, the ideals for which one is prepared to do the same again, but for which one is not prepared to compromise or surrender no matter what the advantages may be.[25]

Nora Connolly

And, with that, Mellows finished off, being rewarded with a round of applause from his audience. Among them, Nora Connolly, daughter of the Easter Rising martyr, thought the verbal display from her long-time friend so marvellous that surely no one would bring themselves to vote for the Treaty after that.[26]

It had indeed been a fine performance. Witnesses were transfixed as Mellows spoke, his voice rising, before growing mordant, then scornful, laying angry emphasis on every word when he denounced the cowardice of others. Éamon de Valera watched him intently, a finger to his chin. Others interposed with the occasional ‘hear, hear’ or the odd burst of hurrahs at the rhetorical high points.

Not all were so enchanted. Some of the other delegates passed the time by reading newspapers, the length of Mellows’ oratory, and that of the debates in general, perhaps getting to them.[27]

Seán Milroy

A whiff of awkward comedy was inadvertently introduced on the following day of the 5th January when Seán Milroy, the TD jointly for the Cavan and Fermanagh-Tyrone constituencies, alleged personal attacks made against him in the pages of a newspaper, a copy of which he held in his hand. Craning their necks, the reporters on duty thought it looked like the Republic of Ireland, to which a certain TD contributed.

Milroy stressed his reluctance to suggest that anyone should be ejected over this content, while introducing in the same breath that same possibility. Some of his audience could not help wondering “how the House would receive a motion to expel Liam Mellowes [alternative spelling], journalist, without interfering with the privileges of Liam Mellowes, Deputy for Galway.”[28]

Civil War

Robert Briscoe

Briscoe was at the IRA headquarters in Parnell Street when a man came running to announce that the Treaty had been accepted by a vote of sixty-four to fifty-seven. The news came like a kick to Briscoe’s stomach, made worse by the paltry difference in votes. Nobody else in the headquarters could speak, as everyone stared dumbfounded at one another.[29]

The day after, on the 8th January, Briscoe was part of a gloomy little gathering that included Mellows and Robinson. None of them knew what to do. The thought of staying in an Ireland set on remaining inside the British Empire was almost too much to bear.

When it was suggested that they follow the example of the Wild Geese and move abroad to find some other country in which to fight the ancestral enemy – India, proposed Séumas Robinson – they went so far as to take this fancy seriously. Anything had to be better than their current plight.

“We were as despairful as only ardent young men can be,” recalled Briscoe, “for the cause which had been the mainspring of our existence seemed forever lost.”[30]

This could not have been an entirely unexpected outcome for Mellows. Just before the vote was taken in the Dáil, he had given a flag to a friend, Seán Hartney, with instructions to fly it over the General Post Office (GPO) if the result was in favour of the Treaty. When Hartney did just that, he noticed that the flag was a Tricolour with a small Union Jack sewn in a corner. To those who saw it, the symbolism would have been clear.[31]

General Post of Office, Dublin

What do revolutionaries do when their revolution comes to a screeching halt? The answer, for some, was to keep on going, Treaty or no Treaty.

Two months later, on the 22nd March 1922, Richard Mulcahy publicly warned that an IRA convention, set to be held in four days’ time, had been banned on the orders of the newly formed Provisional Government. Such restriction made little impression on Rory O’Connor, speaking on the same day. Both men held positions of authority, Mulcahy as Minister of Defence, with O’Connor as GHQ Director of Engineering, but their political stances were by then poles apart.

Rory O’Connor

The proscribed convention would go ahead, promised O’Connor at a press conference. He did not represent GHQ. Instead, he spoke for – in his estimation – 80% of the IRA. His right to do so was derived from consultations he had made with the Army rank and file, through the various divisions and down to their companies. During the Treaty debates of December and January, O’Connor went on, officers from the South and West brigades had come to see both him and Mellows, expressing their view that the IRA, as well as the country in general, had been badly let down.

O’Connor was upfront about the measures to be taken in response. At the forthcoming convention, it would be proposed:

…to the effect that the army re-affirmed its allegiance to the Irish Republic, and, further, that the army returned to the Constitution under which it was ruled when it was known as the Irish Volunteers; that an Executive should be appointed by the Convention; and that the Executive should have complete control of the army.[32]

Given how such a motion would amount to an independent military, unfettered by civilian oversight, it is unsurprising that the Provisional Government should have tried to abort it. O’Malley had already shown how dangerous such a thing could be.

Reaffirming Allegiances

The first flashpoint had been in Limerick, triggered over the takeover of barracks vacated by the British Army. Upon hearing that pro-Treaty IRA units had been drafted from Clare to occupy them, the Limerick Brigade pre-empted with the seizure of a number of buildings under O’Malley’s leadership. Though the Castle remained in GHQ hands, the Limerick dissenters were reinforced by like-minded compatriots from Tipperary and Cork.

King John’s Castle, Limerick

But the Anti-Treatyites were far from united. When O’Malley visited Dublin to ask for O’Connor’s help, the other man refused, preferring to try working with Mulcahy and the rest of GHQ for the time being. Lynch was likewise adverse to taking things further, as shown by how he travelled to Limerick to negotiate an end to the standoff before it could spiral out of control.

“We had won without firing a shot,” O’Malley later crowed. “We had maintained our rights.”

It was perhaps a case of seeing the glass as half-full, but O’Malley had grounds for his triumphalism. Limerick had exposed the lack of control GHQ and the Dáil could exercise over men who did not wish to be controlled. Yet it also showed how uncertain the Anti-Treatyites were on how to proceed.[33]

Richard Mulcahy

Mulcahy’s banning of the March convention was what galvanised them into a united front. O’Malley answered a summons to Dublin from O’Connor to attend a conclave of sympathetic officers, including Mellows, Lynch, Seamus O’Donovan, Seán Russell, Joe McKelvey and Oscar Traynor.

Angered by what they saw as Mulcahy’s intransigence, they agreed to go ahead with the convention, going so far as to elect Lynch as their Chief of Staff – in which capacity Lynch would remain, save for a brief interval, until his dying breath – and appointed the others present to different positions in an impromptu committee, such as Mellows to Quartermaster-General.

As promised, the convention met in the Mansion House on the 26th March, drawing the attendance of over two hundred delegates from the IRA brigade areas, even those where the senior officers were largely pro-Treaty. Which is not to say this was the last word on where allegiances lay.[34]

Florence O’Donoghue

“It is not suggested that all formations which sent delegates to the convention were solid blocks of anti-Treaty opinion,” wrote Florence O’Donoghue, a Cork intelligence officer who was one of the attendees, “neither would it be true to say that there were no anti-Treaty elements in the formations which refrained from attending.”

The political disjuncture, while growing ever stark, could still allow for shades of grey in between the black and white. The Fourth Northern Division was one example of the contradictions of such ambiguity. The Ulster-based unit had sent representatives, even while its O/C, Frank Aiken, endeavoured to remain uncommitted to either side.

In itself, the convention was uneventful. That it had happened at all was incendiary enough. Presided over by Mellows, a number of resolutions were passed, headed by: “That the Army reaffirms its allegiance to the Irish Republic.” There was no more room to be had for any such loyalty towards GHQ or the Dáil.[35]

Group photograph of anti-Treaty officers at an IRA Convention in Dublin, 1922

The Straight Road to the Republic

The Provisional Government responded in kind. On the 30th March, the Irish Times reported how:

Following the holding of the IRA convention in Dublin on Sunday, and the suspension of a number of officers for having attended, General Headquarters, Beggars Bush, have made appointments in many instances where vacancies have occurred on the Headquarters staff.

Mellows was among those replaced, his role as Director of Purchases given instead to Joe Viz, who had worked as his assistant. O’Connor, Seán Russell and Seamus O’Donovan were likewise superseded from their GHQ posts.[36]

It is unlikely that they cared overly. A sixteen-strong Executive, headed by Lynch, and including Mellows and O’Connor, had assumed responsibility for the anti-Treaty IRA. It was headquartered in the Gaelic League Hall, one of the row of late 18th century houses on the west side of Parnell Square, right in the heart of Dublin.

Parnell Square, Dublin

O’Malley did not think much of the building’s defensive capacities, but then, that the Anti-Treatyites were there at all, in defiance of whatever the Provisional Government did or demanded, was a victory in itself. Anyone who thought the Treaty controversy settled had only to see the armed guards by the doors of the Hall and the sandbags in its lower windows to learn otherwise.[37]

This descent into fortified camps and hostile factions was regarded with dismay by many who otherwise counted themselves as Mellows’ friends. Robbins tried intervening with a heart-to-heart in the Kevin Barry Hall in Parnell Square. From 10 pm to 3 am, they fought a bare-knuckle war of words, ultimately to little effect.[38]

For Robbins, the patriotic zeal that had led him to raise a tricolour over the Royal College of Surgeons six years ago during the 1916 Rising had been tempered by sobering realities. The sufferings of the Flood family in particular convinced him that there had to be an easier way than that of the gun.

He had played football with some of the Flood boys, and worked with two of them in the Dublin Dockyards. All eight sons were involved in the independence movement, with some paying a heavy price.  Frank had been hanged with five other imprisoned IRA members on the 14th March 1921. Seán died soon after completing a five-year jail sentence, while Thomas, captured in the Custom House attack, was narrowly saved from sharing Frank’s fate by the Truce of July 1921.

When Robbins met a fourth brother, Peter Flood told him that all he wanted was to live for Ireland, rather than dying over it, there having been too many unnecessary deaths already. In light of the tragic family history, Robbins was deeply moved on hearing this.[39]

frankflood2In contrast, Mellows still “had a hard and fast approach. Nothing but the straight road to the Republic would do,” Robbins complained.

Yet when the possibility of civil war was raised, Mellows dismissed it out of hand, to Robbins’ incredulity. How in the current state, Robbins asked, with two armies implacably opposed to each other’s goals, could civil war be anything other than inevitable?

Mellows did not see it that way. The straight road to the Republic would be maintained, he said, and at the same time there would be no civil war. “We regard ourselves as engineers mapping out a new county,” he declared, rather loftily.

“Good engineers would not drive into impossible obstacles,” Robbins retorted. “They would find a way of circumventing or evading the problem.”

But to Mellows, such talk could only amount to the one thing he would have nothing to do with. “No, there must be no compromise,” he said.

“Then there must be a civil war.”

“Such will not happen, but the straight road to the Republic must be maintained.”

They were going in circles by then. When the conversation finally ended in the early hours, the two parted, still friends but on separate paths that could only diverge as time and circumstances pressed on.[40]

5719201849_21b0e654bf_zA Lot of Sick People

Mutual incomprehension was the order of the day. Too many seemed incapable of understanding an alternative point of view, and Mellows was as guilty as any of this. When he met Joseph Lawless, a Fingal IRA officer, on a tramcar passing through Nassau Street, Dublin, his first instincts were to go on the attack. Sitting next to Lawless, Mellows asked, with a hint of accusation: “I thought you were sick?”

As Lawless recalled:

I was in the uniform of the National Army at the time and understood his remark as meaning that he thought my sympathies lay with the anti-treatyites, and was surprised to see me in uniform.

Lawless pretended to take his question at face value, replying that, au contraire, he was feeling better than ever. Unsatisfied, Mellows repeated himself, putting the emphasis on the final word of ‘sick’. Lawless had had enough:

I replied that I believed that there were a lot of sick people going around just now, but that, fortunately I was not among the number.

Mellows dropped the quasi-interrogation at that, and the rest of the ride together was passed in awkward silence.[41]

William O’Brien

Amidst the growing tensions, Robbins was prevailed on by William O’Brien, the General Treasurer of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union (ITGWU), to use his friendship with Mellows and set up a meeting with Lynch and O’Connor. Quite what the union leader thought he could offer or accomplish is unknown, but Robbins agreed to do so. What was there to lose anyway?

Setting off from Parnell Square on the night of the 13th April 1922, towards Barry’s Hotel on Gardiner Row where Mellows was staying, Robbins saw a large number of men moving quickly in the opposite direction. Upon arriving at the hotel, he asked the porter to inform Mellows that he had a visitor. Instead:

A tallish man with rimless glasses appeared and, in a voice of some arrogance, asked who I was and what was my business. I am afraid the same attitude was adopted by me, as I replied, “I came here to see Liam Mellows, and who might you be?”

Liam Lynch

The other man introduced himself as Liam Lynch. Mellows was not here, he said, and repeated his question as to Robbins’ business. Robbins held his ground, stating that his business was with Mellows alone. Faced with a stalemate, Lynch put an end to the display of raised heckles and brusque statements by informing his unwanted guest not to bother, as Mellows would not be back that night.

Robbins was left to be on his way. It had been a prickly, uncomfortable encounter, and worse was to follow. He learned that while he was fencing verbally with Lynch, the Four Courts in the city centre had been occupied by the anti-Treaty IRA, escalating the situation to a dangerous new level.[42]

A Last Meeting

Undeterred by the rise in tension, Robbins called in on the Four Courts the next day, on the 14th April. Admitted without much difficulty – security there would tighten in time – Robbins was led to the main section of the complex, where Mellows was at a meeting with other IRA officers. When that was done, the two men were able to talk beneath the dome of the building.

The Four Courts, Dublin

After the opening pleasantries, Robbins asked why had such a drastic move been taken. Space, Mellows replied. None of the other sites in Dublin the Anti-Treatyites had already occupied – the Gaelic League Hall in Parnell Square, the Kildare Street Club, Port Sunlight on Parliament Street, or the Masonic Hall of Molesworth Street – were sufficiently large for a proper base of operations. It was an answer Robbins found hard to take seriously.

“Liam, are you quite sure it is only because you want a suitable headquarters?” Robbins pressed. “Is there another motive?”

“That is all,” Mellows insisted. When his friend remained unconvinced, he said: “Well, what do you think it is?”

“Liam, this is the last vestige of British authority left in this country,” Robbins said, by which he meant the Treaty. “Your action is a direct challenge to that authority.”

If the Provisional Government did not rise to the challenge, Robbins warned, the British would return, and then Ireland “will cut a very sorry figure in future.”

Frank Robbins

To this, Mellows offered only a smile, though Robbins thought it a very sad one. Left unstated was how a British comeback would accomplish exactly what Mellows wanted, nullifying as it would the hated Treaty and reuniting the IRA against a common enemy. Far from blundering into war, as Robbins accused, Mellows knew what he was doing – or, at least, thought he did.

When Mellows tried changing the topic, Robbins, impatient with such evasions, got down to the reason he was there in the first place. After he relayed the request from O’Brien for a sit-down between the Anti-Treatyites and some ITGWU representatives, Mellows agreed to arrange one.

That was the last time he and Robbins met or spoke. The meeting happened, as Mellows promised, in the Four Courts but ended with nothing to show, an all-too-common result in a country lurching towards disaster, with no one capable of stopping it.[43]

To be continued in: Rebel Herald: Liam Mellows and the Opposition to the Treaty, 1922 (Part VI)


[1] Robbins. Frank. Under the Starry Plough: Recollections of the Irish Citizen Army (Dublin: The Academy Press, 1977), pp. 227-8

[2] Woods, Mary Flannery (BMH / WS 624), p. 23

[3] Ibid, pp. 12, 14-16

[4] Ibid, pp. 21-2

[5] Ibid, pp. 16, 22-3

[6] Ibid, pp. 27-8

[7] Reader, Seamus (BMH / WS 933), pp. 7-8

[8] Ibid, p. 4

[9] Ibid, pp. 10-3

[10] Dore, Eamon T. (BMH / WS 515), p. 9

[11] Noyk, Michael (BMH / WS 707), p. 113

[12] Moylan, Seán (BMH / WS 838), p. 279

[13] Deasy, Liam, Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 27

[14] Daly, Una (BMH / WS 610), pp. 3-4

[15] Ibid, p. 5

[16] White, Vincent (BMH / WS 1764), pp. 32-5

[17] McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934), pp. 179, 183

[18] Robbins, p. 229

[19] Briscoe, Robert and Hatch, Alden. For the Life of Me (London: Longmans, Green and Co. Ltd., 1959), p. 130

[20] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002), p. 45

[21] O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), pp. 61-3

[22] ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,, pp.227-31

[23] Briscoe, p. 135

[24] ‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland’, p. 233

[25] Ibid, p. 234

[26] MacEoin, Uinseann, Survivors (Dublin: Argenta Publications, 1980), p. 210

[27] De Burca and Boyle, p. 45

[28] Ibid, p. 55

[29] Briscoe, p. 137

[30] Ibid, p. 141

[31] Griffith, Kenneth and O’Grady, Timothy. Curious Journey: An Oral History of Ireland’s Unfinished Revolution (Dublin: Mercier Press, 1998), p. 271

[32] Irish Times, 23/03/1922

[33] O’Malley, pp. 74-82

[34] Ibid, pp. 83-5

[35] O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986), p. 220

[36] Irish Times, 30/03/1922

[37] O’Malley, p. 85

[38] Robbins, p. 229

[39] Ibid, pp. 225-6

[40] Ibid, pp. 229-30

[41] Lawless, Joseph (BMH / WS 1043), pp. 437-8

[42] Robbins, pp. 230-1

[43] Ibid, pp. 231-2



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

Deasy, Liam. Brother Against Brother (Cork: Mercier Press, 1998)

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F. Free State or Republic? (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2002)

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

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

McGuinness, Charles. Nomad: Memoirs of an Irish Sailor, Soldier, Pearl-Fisher, Pirate, Gun-runner, Rum-runner, Rebel and Antarctic Explorer (London: Methuen and Company, 1934)

O’Donoghue, Florence. No Other Law: The Story of Liam Lynch and the Irish Republican Army, 1916-1923 (Dublin: Irish Press Ltd., 1986)

O’Malley, Ernie. The Singing Flame (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

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

Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, Una, WS 610

Dore, Eamon T., WS 515

Lawless, Joseph V., WS 1043

Moylan, Seán, WS 838

Noyk, Michael, WS 707

Reader, Seamus, WS 933

White, Vincent, WS 1764

Woods, Mary Flannery, WS 624


Irish Times

Online Source

‘Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922’ (accessed on the 11th March 2018) CELT: The Corpus of Electronic Texts,


Book Review: After the Rising: Soldiers, Lawyers and Trials of the Irish Revolution, by Seán Enright (2016)


bookcoverThomas Traynor was charged with murder on the 6th April 1921 in Dublin City Hall by a military court. A small, wiry man of about forty with a long, black moustache that gave him a mournful appearance, Traynor had been apprehended at 144 Brunswick Street, the scene of an ambush on a British Army patrol that resulted in the death of two cadets. The fleeing Traynor had been rugby-tackled to the ground by a lieutenant who reported that Traynor had shouted: “God’s sake, shoot me now.” Later he had told another of his captors: “I am only a soldier like yourself.”

Under the rules of the court, Traynor was not entitled to give any evidence or be cross-examined. Not that he had much to say, only that he had been caught up in the fighting while carrying a gun – the same automatic found on him at the scene – to give to someone else. He made no attempt to explain the incriminating remarks attributed to him. All this, and his prior involvement in the Easter Rising of five years ago, ensured his conviction for murder and hanging.

British Army and police patrol

If there was little doubt that Traynor had indeed been involved in the ambush on Brunswick Street, then the case of Patrick Maher could only be described as tragic. He was among those arrested and brought to trial for the rescue of Seán Hogan at Knocklong Station that saw two policemen killed in the resulting shootout.

Due to an unfortunate resemblance to Dan Breen, one of the participants in the rescue, Maher was picked out of a police line-up. His name had earlier been passed to the authorities by ‘private information’ – in other words, an informant, unusual in itself when such sources of information were fast drying up.

Maher had worked at Cleeves Creamery throughout a strike, the only employee who had done so, and it is probable that his name had been supplied to the police out of spite (he had already been boycotted and threatened). Along with another man convicted of the shootout (probably accurately), Maher was the last man executed during the War of Independence, on the 7th June 1921, four days before the Truce which would have saved him.

These are but two of the cases that illuminate Seán Enright’s study of the revolutionary period in Ireland, with a focus on the War of Independence. Enright flips the usual Hibernian-centric narrative on its head by focusing on the British perspective, making it one of the few works to do so.

Earlier studies such as William Sheehan’s Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 and W.H. Kautt’s Ambushes and Armour: The Irish Rebellion, 1919-1921 had also followed such a line, though these focused on the military side of things, the obvious area of study for this turbulent period with its ambushes and assassinations.

British Army checkpoint, Dublin

Enright eschews this approach by focusing on the use of the legal system by Dublin Castle to try and contain the growing rebellion on its watch. This leads to a quieter, more analytical read than most works, though – as the author demonstrates throughout – not one that is any less dramatic. Enright understands that stories are the building blocks of history, and here we get plenty of them.

This may not appear obvious at first, given a subject material that seems on the surface to be a dry one. Whatever its interest, Enright leaves us in no doubt as to its importance in understanding the conflict. “A unique feature of this revolution,” he writes, “was the extent to which the conflict centred on law and legal institutions which kept the status quo in place.”

The Crown Courts were intended to be instruments of keeping rebellion in check, yet their juries could not be guaranteed to deliver the verdicts that the British Government needed. Partly this was due to Irish Republican Army (IRA) intimidation, and the few witnesses who did come forward risked boycotts and social alienation.

A more direct approach by the IRA was the burning of court houses, with a total of forty-seven destroyed by the spring of 1920. The presiding judge of one ruined court at Borrisokane in County Tipperary, however, proved to be not so easily vanquished, as Enright describes with a fine eye for tragicomedy:

Major Dease, a hefty, old R.M. convened court in the blackened ruins. Major Dease continued to sit session, his white hair plastered to his face by falling rain. The court staff exchanged glances occasionally but no one was brave enough to say anything to the old Major.

In other cases, no coercion was needed, as local authorities switched allegiances to the Dáil Éireann and quickly made their newfound loyalties known. The Roscommon County Council served notice to landlords of court buildings that no rent would be paid for them as their services were no longer required. In Newbridge, County Kildare, the end of the old system came even more abruptly when the resident magistrate arrived one morning to find the front door to his courthouse locked.

Burnt-out building from the War of Independence

Even the few Crown courts that continued to function did so only barely. The last politically-motivated murder trial heard by a jury was in the spring of 1920. What looked like an iron-clad case against the accused for the shooting of a policeman in Tipperary was thrown on its head when it was revealed mid-trial that the main witness for the prosecution had made an original statement that differed considerably from what he had just given.

It was in the wake of such administrative impotence that Winston Churchill urged the rest of the Cabinet to adopt harsher measures. When it emerged during the Cabinet discussion that the Irish Judiciary, still loyal to the principles of open justice, had refused to take on non-jury trials, Churchill quipped: “Get three generals if you cannot get three judges.”

Crowds Trying to Force Barricade
British soldiers in Dublin

That set the tone for the British response in the latter half of the War, namely the establishment of the military courts and the assigning of the British Army to do what the civilian administration could not.

The first person to be tried for murder under the new system was an 18-year old student, Kevin Barry, for an ambush in Dublin that resulted in three dead soldiers. Despite appeals for clemency, Barry was hanged.

This marked a turning point. Before, IRA defendants could have safely declined to recognise the legitimacy of the toothless courts before them. The possibility of lengthy sentences or even execution made subsequent trials a literal matter of life and death.

Sir Nevil Macready, circa 1915

Even the Truce of 1921 and the cessation of hostilities did not stop the legal battles, particularly with forty-two men still on death row and over a hundred awaiting trial. Sir Nevil Macready, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Ireland, intended to proceed with the executions of the former and the start processing the latter, but the case of J.J. Egan, convicted by a military court for the possession of ammunition, threatened to throw a spanner in the whole works.

As briskly summarised by Enright:

The primary argument advanced for the prisoner, Egan, can be distilled in a few lines: the Crown had released the prerogative power to wage war in Ireland to Parliament by passing the ROIA [Restoration of Order in Ireland Act] to deal with the Rebellion and therefore only Parliament could embark on new measures. It followed that the whole edifice of martial law was unlawful.

Matters went badly for Macready when the Master of the Rolls ruled that the military courts were indeed unlawful, with a writ for habeas corpus issued for Egan and the prisoner to be produced in court. Macready held his ground and informed his subordinates to ignore the writ, prompting the issuing of a further writ by the Master of the Rolls for the arrests of Macready and two other generals.

Both sides backed down with their writs the following day, with Egan released and Macready out of danger – but with the military courts, the headstone of British strategy, severely compromised in the event of further warfare in Ireland.

As the above story shows, Enright is adept at bringing out some of the more obscure details of the period into the light, leading to a fuller understanding. But research is not the writer’s only talent, displaying at times the ability to capture taunt, at times gripping depictions of otherwise quiet scenes inside a courtroom.

This book appeals to a number of interests: the challenges a liberal democracy faces in confronting a war, one of the least liberal occurrences, in its midst. The weapons that a military regime, as the British state in Ireland essentially was by its end, can use – and have used against it. Brief but evocative pen portraits of the various senior figures in authority. A study of how things fall apart with the centre slowly but surely failing to hold, no matter how much legal chicanery or brute force is applied. It is for this ability to show many things at once that After the Rising deserves to be on the shelf of any serious student of the period.


Publisher’s Website: Merrion Press

Originally posted on The Irish Story (16/12/2016)


Twenty Years a Republican: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1919-1922 (Part II)

A continuation of: A Prominent Republican Leader: The Trials and Tribulations of Seán McGarry, 1913-1919 (Part I)

The Men Behind the Men

Imprisonment barely slowed McGarry down. After his release in December 1916 as part of the general amnesty, he was hard at work again with the resurgent republican cause, the immediate goal being to ensure the IRB and the Irish Volunteers remained joined at the hip, and the former in charge.

Which was simple enough: in October 1917, candidates doubling as IRB initiates gained all the seats on the Volunteer Executive at the latter’s Convention, with McGarry as General Secretary and an up-and-coming Michael Collins as Director of Organisation (Collins was first nominated as Secretary but withdrew in favour of the other man).[1]

Seán McGarry (right) and Michael Collins (centre)

While the movement was in robust health and McGarry’s role in it a prominent one, he did not always get his own way. In mid-1917, the topic of conversation at Fleming’s Hotel, Gardiner Place, was the impending bye-election in Clare, where Éamon de Valera was planning to contest as a Sinn Féin candidate. Although not strictly an IRB meeting, most of those present in Fleming’s were members.

McGarry protested against the possibility of Eoin MacNeill’s involvement in the election, considering him persona non grata for his attempts to countermand the Rising (he was equally pitiless with another miscreant who had tried to interfere, writing to the disgraced Bulmer Hobson in March 1918 on behalf of the Volunteer Executive for him to return any monies or properties belonging to the Volunteers and submit himself for court-martial).[2]

McGarry was overruled by de Valera, however, who threatened to boycott his own campaign if MacNeill was not permitted.[3]

The two men could not have had more divergent opinions. De Valera had joined the IRB shortly before the Easter Rising upon learning to his shock that his Brotherhood-connected subordinates knew more about the plans for the rebellion than he did. He left soon afterwards and would nurse a distaste for the fraternity.[4]

“Curse secret societies,” de Valera wrote later, adding that he had been tempted several times to take “drastic action” against the IRB but held off for fear of the turmoil that might cause.[5]

A Question of Authority

Sometime before the polling day in Clare, another gathering was held in Limerick by IRB luminaries such as Austin Stack, Seán Ó Muirthile, Thomas Ashe, Ernest Blythe as well as McGarry. Stack asked the others why they were not at their posts in Clare in accordance with their candidate’s orders.

“Who gave de Valera authority to order us about?” McGarry groused. The remark triggered an impromptu discussion on whether or not it was appropriate for the Brotherhood to be involved in political matters. It was the last sort of question that a secret society like the IRB would want aired.

In the end, the others obligingly departed for Clare to assist de Valera except McGarry who made his way back to Dublin in a huff. If McGarry had thought that the new politicians were going to be at the IRB’s beck and call, then he was sorely behind the times.[6]

Éamon de Valera

Given the tension between McGarry and de Valera, it was only fitting that the two men should be thrown together when they were arrested and deported to England in May 1918 along with others as part of the supposed ‘German Plot’. Michael Collins had been on his way to warn McGarry of the impending arrests but arrived too late (a practical man, Collins then stayed the night at McGarry’s house, reasoning that the authorities would be unlikely to return to a place they had already raided).[7]

McGarry had by then risen to become President of the IRB Supreme Council. The historian Leon Ó Broin could not resist noting how two presidents of the Irish Republic had been imprisoned together in Lincoln Prison, de Valera of Dáil Éireann and McGarry due to the IRB constitution proclaiming its head to be de facto that of the Republic (although this is perhaps not an idea that stands up to serious scrutiny).[8]

A Man’s Work, Done by Men

Confinement did not hold either man for long. In the weeks following the well-publicised escape, in February 1919, of McGarry, de Valera and a third man, Seán Milroy, from Lincoln Prison, Harry Boland felt the need to rebut some of the stories that had been circulating.

Harry Boland

Speaking to the Evening Herald in his role as Honorary Secretary of the Sinn Féin Executive, Boland dismissed the existence of the ‘Ultra-Irish Society’, a thinly-veiled depiction of Sinn Féin, which was supposedly behind the jailbreak. What particularly jarred him was the rumour that girls had been brought over from Ireland to flirt with the English gaolers as a honeypot distraction.

“We have too much respect for our Irish girls to subject them to such humiliation,” Boland harrumphed. “President de Valera’s rescue was a man’s work and was done by men.”[9]

The real story behind the escape was surreal enough without the need for femme fatale colleens. Michael Lynch, a Volunteer of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Dublin and a friend of McGarry’s, was visited by Tomasina McGarry, some eight or nine months after her husband was deported.

She had received from him a most puzzling postcard with two pencil sketches of a man whose thin, bespectacled face bore more than a passing resemblance to her husband’s. In one of the cartoons, the gentleman was trying vainly to open a door with a comically oversized key. Beneath, it read: 1917 – can’t get in.The second sketch showed the now despondent fellow sitting in cell before an also-comically oversized keyhole, with the words: 1918 – can’t get out.

“Did you show this to Michel Collins?” asked Lynch, according to his recollections.

“No. Why should I?” she replied.

“I think you had better.”

Collins lost his temper when shown the  card, demanding to know why the hell Tomasina had kept it to herself for so long. It turned out that the cartoons were a coded message from the prisoners in Lincoln Prison, covertly asking for a key to be sent over.[10]

The coded postcard depicting Seán McGarry, from Dunne, Declan. Peters Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)


Tomasina McGarry could be forgiven for not knowing a code she had not been privy to, especially how mystified everyone else was.

The card had been initially sent to a sympathetic priest in Leeds, minus any actual instructions on what to do with it. The padre took the items to Liam McMahon, a senior member of the IRB in Manchester, but the latter was equally stumped. McMahon at least had the inkling that the card was supposed to convey something, so it was forwarded to Dublin, where it ended up in the possession of Tomasina, although that was not the end of the confusion, as McMahon put it:

I believe they had the same difficulty in Dublin in trying to find anything in them.  Eventually, I think Collins tumbled to the fact that there was something in them.[11]

That something was a request from the prisoners for a key. Several were made, based on the drawing in the postcard, and smuggled into Lincoln Prison via cakes (one baked by McMahon’s wife). None of these keys, however, fitted the locks.

Finally, one of the prisoners, Peter de Loughry, was able to duplicate one by unscrewing the lock off the door of the common-room where the inmates were allowed to be unsupervised every afternoon. A skilled craftsman, de Loughry was able to work steadily on his project every day before the lock would be reinserted into the door in time for the guards’ return.

McGarry would wonder at how they ever got away with it, considering how every time the lock was removed from the door its hole was gradually widened until it was ready to fall out. But got away with it they did.

Meanwhile, the rescue team, including Collins and Boland, had come over to England where they were using McMahon’s house in Manchester to plan the operation. McMahon was assigned to secure a taxi and wait with it in Sheffield on the appointed day of the 3rd February. Collins and Boland journeyed to Lincoln Prison with a spare copy of the key de Loughry had made in case anything went amiss – which, in obedience to Murphy’s Law, it did.

The two rescuers approached the door in the prison wall, near the courtyard on the other side where de Valera, McGarry and Milroy were due to come. Collins and Boland waited by the door for a tense while until they heard the muffled sounds of footsteps from the inside. After ascertaining that they had the right men, Collins put his key in the lock and gave it a sharp turn.

The key, much to everyone’s horror, promptly snapped.

Before anyone could panic, de Valera saved the situation by producing his own spare copy which he inserted into the lock, pushing out the broken one. The door swung open and the three absconders padded out in their canvas slippers which they had worn to deaden the noise. Looking back, McGarry was to rue not locking the door behind them for added effect, as that would have made their escape all the more mystifying.[12]

In Sheffield, McMahon was waiting impatiently in his taxi, with frequent glances at his watch, when de Valera, McGarry and Milroy made their appearance. As McMahon drove the three runaways to Manchester, McGarry talked about all the possible ways they could get to Dublin.

In a sign that their time spent locked up together may not have been an easy one, de Valera turned to McGarry and said, in McMahon’s recollections: “Don’t you think the men outside have done very well so far? Why not leave it to them to do the rest?”

That was the end of the chatter, much to McMahon’s relief. His part completed, McMahon last saw McGarry on his way to the train station for Liverpool disguised as a bookie.[13]

Harry Boland (left), Michael Collins (centre) and Éamon de Valera (right)

The Return Home

McGarry’s return to Dublin was a discreet one without fanfare or fuss. He was able to hide at Lynch’s house on Richmond Road after Collins had dropped by the day before to let the family know the fugitive was coming. Collins did not seem to ask for permission, but Lynch, as a member of the Irish Volunteers, could hardly refuse sanctuary to a fellow freedom-fighter.

What could have been a strained situation in the house, particularly with McGarry unable to step outside for fear of recognition, was elevated by his general good humour. He was fond of jokes and stories, according to Lynch, and was fortunate enough to befriend Lynch’s new wife, who was not above adding to the humour by pranking her guest.

Noting a habit of McGarry’s to overuse the firepoker – at least ten times within half an hour in one sitting – Mrs Lynch sneakily applied a liberal amount of polish to the handle. She then waited as the unsuspecting target prodded at the fireplace as per habit while absentmindedly rubbing his face. Confused as to the gales of laughter from the rest of the household, it was not until he stood up and looked in the mirror that he saw the blackness smeared all over his features.

The victim was not amused, as told by Lynch, somewhat belying what he said about McGarry’s constant geniality: “He chased my wife round and round the table. She saved herself by running down the garden, and all Seán could do was stand at the kitchen door and curse.”

It was not all ‘fun’ and games. Tomasina was unable to see her husband lest she bring unwanted attention. The nearest thing to contact McGarry could have with his three children – Emmet, Sadie and Desmond – was for them to be taken by the family maid for a walk every afternoon, if the weather permitted, to Richmond Road, from where McGarry could peer out for a glimpse of them. However unsatisfying, it was the most he could have.

After first consulting with Collins, it was agreed that enough time had passed for Tomasina to come over. One day, she brought their son, Emmet, who, at the age of three, had only vague memories of his long-absent father. He had been told beforehand they were visiting the doctor and was none the wiser during the course of the surreptitious reunion, until:

[Emmet] crept up on his daddy’s knee, and he told us all, in his little innocent way, that he was a very nice doctor. Then, suddenly, recognition, came into the little kid’s eyes. He threw his arms around his father’s neck and cried out, “You are my daddy!”. It was the most moving scene I ever remember, not only for Seán, but the whole lot of us felt the tears in our eyes.

A chip off the old block at keeping secrets, little Emmet kept his visitations to his father to himself. His twin sister, Sadie, was also brought to the Lynch house; that way, the McGarrys were able to maintain some semblance of overdue family life.[14]

Seán McGarry

The War Continues

It was almost a month after the jailbreak when Collins had the idea of publicly unveiling McGarry, the chose venue being a public concert at the Mansion House. Posters advertised the presence of a “prominent Republican leader” who would be speaking at the concert but no names or further details were given until the evening of the concert on the 4th March when McGarry marched on stage in the uniform of the Irish Volunteers. After a brief speech, the returned hero was bundled out of the building and driven away before the nearby policemen could interfere.[15]

Seán McGarry in crowd

By now a public figure, McGarry entered the arena of politics on behalf of the now ascendant Sinn Féin party. He was already a councillor in Dublin Corporation, having been introduced as such by the Lord Mayor at the Mansion House concert. The Corporation had met for a special session a month earlier, in February 1919, to replace a recently departed member. As per the rules, the replacement could be selected by the party of the deceased – in this case the beleaguered Irish Parliamentary Party – but the nominee withdrew in favour of Sinn Féin’s McGarry.

It was a sign of the times that, in the words of historian Pádraig Yeates:

The fact that he was on the run…and that this might hamper him in the discharging his duties as a public representative, does not appear to have been considered an impediment.[16]

Come the start of 1920, McGarry ran as a candidate for alderman in Dublin Corporation, and later as a TD for Dublin Mid in the 1922 general elections, winning both times on a Sinn Féin ticket.[17] It is unclear if he entered politics on his own volition or due to instructions but given his essentially passive nature, the latter seems most likely.

His newfound public role carried its own set of dangers as McGarry, still a man on the run, was obliged to attend council meetings. In December 1922, armed Auxiliaries intruded upon one such session of Dublin Corporation. All those present were questioned, resulting in six of them being taken away in custody.

The officer in charge had called out the list of names present in the roll book. When he came to McGarry, a voice responded: “Not here.” At the same time, Margaret McGarry, another Sinn Féin member of the Council and no relation, remarked: “My name is McGarry, perhaps it is me?”

Whether meant in jest or confusion, she was quickly told to shush by the Lord Mayor. When the Auxiliaries left, it was without McGarry among their catch of prisoners, either because he had left the room in time or had been able to remain undetected inside.[18]

British soldiers and civilians in Ireland

Out of Sight

For the most part, however, McGarry drops out of the historian’s view during the months of the War of Independence. His reticence in revealing too much, either to the Bureau of Military History (preferring to dwell more on his mentor, Tom Clarke, than on himself) or the Military Pensions Board (where he was already assured of a pension, having been in the National Army as a captain during the Civil War), means that it is hard to reconstruct his activities in any great depth.

It is not even clear if he stayed on in Lynch’s house after being ‘outed’ in the Mansion House or if he moved elsewhere. His entry in the Dictionary of Irish Biography describes him as being “captain in the IRA Dublin Brigade throughout the war of independence” but no other source supports this.[19]

While imprisoned in Lincoln, he had been replaced as President of the IRB Supreme Council by Harry Boland, and later Collins.[20] A follower rather than a leader, McGarry made no effort to regain his presidency, seemingly content to leave it to Collins. McGarry would serve his successor as he had previously done for Tom Clarke and Seán MacDermott.

As part of this, McGarry was sent to Britain sometime in April/May 1921 to touch base with the few isolated Volunteers and the remnants of the IRB there. According to one of those he talked to, the fight for freedom was nearly at the end of its tether in Ireland. If the cause was to be abandoned until the next generation were ready to resume, then the Brotherhood would best be reorganised among the young. [21] His efforts did not result in any great success. However, the British-based IRB was too much in disarray, and “Sean gave up in despair.”[22]

Seán McGarry, mugshot

Speaking to a journalist in 1955, de Valera recalled how McGarry, “whom he did not think much of,” called to see him one day in December 1920 “and spoke to him on authority about should be done,” presumably about the ongoing war with Britain. McGarry had apparently been so circumspect that de Valera did not even realise that his guest had come on behalf of the IRB. De Valera assumed that the other man had come in a private capacity and was “merely…talking big to impress.”

It was only after his visitor was gone that de Valera remembered that he was in the IRB, although the former’s information was out of date as he assumed that McGarry was still its president. Historian Tim Pat Coogan commented that McGarry “was more likely the Brotherhood’s Secretary and certainly a member of the Supreme Council.”[23]

Actually, it is not certain at all if McGarry was still on the Supreme Council or, if not, when he had stopped being so. He was absent at a critical meeting of the IRB Supreme Council – called to discuss the Treaty crisis – on the 19th April 1922, despite the presence there of Michael Collins, Seán Ó Muirthile and Diarmuid O’Hegarty, who had each played a role in ‘unveiling’ him at the Mansion House three years ago.[24]

Michael Collins

Michael Collins in military uniform

McGarry remained close to Collins, holding a place in the other man’s affections as a living totem of the recent past. During the course of his interviews with the American journalist Hayden Talbot, between December 1921 and the following August, Collins complimented McGarry as “the one man who was closer in the confidence of the leaders of the rising than any other man today” – high praise, indeed, considering the hallowed status of said leaders.

Collins was keen for Talbot to meet McGarry for him to give the inside scoop on the Easter Rising and the Howth Gunrunning, both of which he had been intimately involved. The first scheduled meeting fell through due to the Civil War making the streets of Dublin too dangerous for McGarry to travel through. He was able to make it at the next one on the 2nd August 1922, and dutifully relayed to Talbot what he knew while Collins looked on.

McGarry was the very image of the deferential subordinate, at one point glancing at his Commander-in-Chief for advice on how to answer Talbot’s latest question. Collins did not always reciprocate the courtesy. Thinking that the interview had gone on for too long and it was his turn to speak, he brusquely interrupted McGarry, who took the cue and dutifully left for the night.[25]

Tomasina McGarry

In contrast to the relative obscurity of McGarry’s wartime activities, his wife’s are much more accessible. Lacking the military rank of her husband with its guarantee of a pension, Tomasina McGarry was obliged to be more forthcoming in her application to the Military Pensions Board.

In her typed statement in 1945, she told of how during Easter Week 1916 she had delivered letters that her sister had carried from the GPO. Service in the War of Independence in Dublin included her acting as a go-between for Collins and his moles within the DMP. One conveniently lived next door to her and was able to pass on warnings of impending police raids nine or ten times.

Women from Cumann na mBan

Otherwise, her duties were small and infrequent but essential to the smooth maintenance of an underground army, such as finding accommodation for Volunteers when needed, allowing weapons to be stored at her house or, on one occasion, passing on two revolvers purchased by her sister from an enterprising Black-and-Tan.[26]

Tomisina had an impressive list of references. Richard Mulcahy confirmed to the Board that:

She was a close confidante of Michael Collins, and throughout the whole of the post-1916 period of military activity was closely connected with his personal intelligence work. He made a complete use of her services and of her home, for that work, and her services made a considerable contribution to his personal safety.[27]

Others agreed. Gearoíd O’Sullivan described her as “a great one in efficiency and thoroughness,” and how she had stored for Collins papers relating to IRB funding. Leo Henderson told of how she had “rendered great service to the men of the movement; a confidante, conveying messages,” and confirmed a story of him retrieving a gun from its hiding place in her kettle at home (unfortunately, Tomisina was found by the Board to be illegible for a pension).[28]

Letter from Richard Mulcahy to the Pension Board, verifying Tomasina McGarry’s role in the War of Independence

The Dáil Debates

As a TD, McGarry was entitled to contribute to the debates in the Dáil over whether to ratify the Anglo-Irish Treaty. Speaking on the 3rd January 1922, he began by promising to make a record for brevity. According to some journalists who were present, “he didn’t, but he went so near that we forgave him.”[29]

Considering the not-inconsiderate length of his speech as it appears on the printed page, including interjections by others and his comebacks, all of which apparently took just ten minutes, it can summarised that McGarry spoke very quickly indeed.

With this soon-to-be-broken promise made, he wasted no time in making his choice clear. He supported the ratification of the Treaty with no apology. Shifting from a defensive stance to an offensive one, he proclaimed that he did not wait until he was a member of the present Dáil before becoming a Republican (unlike, presumably, others in the room, though he left any names unstated).

He had worked in the Republican movement for twenty years. He was a Republican that day and he would be a Republican the next, and, as such, he would be voting for the Treaty as it stood:

For that I do not need the opinion of a constitutional lawyer or a constitutional layman or a Webster’s Dictionary or a Bible to tell me what it means. I put on it the interpretation of the ordinary plain man who means what he says. I am not looking for any other interpretation from Webster’s Dictionary or anywhere else. I know what the Treaty means, and the man in the street knows what it means.[30]

This display of impatient insistence could be attributed to the effects of having to listen to – as historian Jason K. Knirck puts it – the previous, seemingly “endless speeches, many of which seemed overly abstract and theoretical.”[31]

McGarry was not the only one to display abstraction fatigue. Speaking on the following day, James Murphy, TD for Louth-Meath, opened with an admission that “not being a constitutional lawyer I do not possess the art of saying nothing in a great many words. Consequently I can relieve the House by assuring it that I will be very brief” (unlike McGarry, Murphy was true to his promise). Shortly afterwards, James Burke, TD for Tipperary Mid, assured his audience, that despite being a lawyer, he was not going to “indulge in a long and laboured dissertation on constitutional law.”[32]

The second Dail in the Mansion House, August 1921

Fencing in the Dáil

Lambasting the naivety of those who had had inflated expectations of what the London talks could achieve, he asked: “What did we think we were sending to Downing Street for? Did any of us think we were going to get an Irish Republic in Downing Street?”

To this, the ardently anti-Treaty Mary MacSwiney piped up: “Of course you could.”

“A Downing Street Republic?” McGarry said incredulously, prompting laughter from the room.

MacSwiney held her ground. “No, a Downing Street withdrawal from Ireland.”

“Downing Street are withdrawing from Ireland.”

“No, they are not.”

Mary MacSwiney

Stalemated, McGarry switched on to another tactic: mockery, directed towards the apparent inconsistency in the form of Document No. 2. The brainchild of Éamon de Valera, Document No. 2 was intended as a bridge between the two factions as a slightly rewritten version of the Irish stance during the London talks, with the inclusion of the more acceptable elements of the Treaty to round it off as a compromise.

While it was to be praised by many historians as a “powerful, sophisticated piece of political thought”, the apparent climb-down from a steadfast Republic-and-nothing-but-the-Republic line to a far less glamorous-sounding alternative made the Document an easy target for McGarry to home in on:[33]

Several Deputies protested very strongly and very loudly that they were standing on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. A week before they were standing on the slippery slopes—to borrow a phrase of the Minister of Finance—the slippery slopes of Document No. 2. Document No. 2 was pulled from under their feet and landed them with what must have been an awful jerk on the bedrock of the Irish Republic. They will be standing on that until the proper time—I mean the time when Document No. 2, or perhaps Document No. 3 will be given to us.[34]

“You can have it immediately if you like, whatever your side agrees,” de Valera retorted. It was a fairly nonsensical comeback which made it sound as if he actually had a Document No. 3 at hand, but probably said in the heat of the moment.

Éamon de Valera

McGarry again did not linger, moving onto a different subject and another chink in the Anti-Treatyites’ armour; in this case, their lack of popular support:

There has been theorising in some of the speeches made here by Deputies about Government by the consent of the governed—self-determination. You can have government in Ireland to-day by consent of the governed with this Treaty. You can have self-extermination without it; but you cannot have war without the consent of the Irish people. And the only reason you carried on war for the last two years was because you had the consent of the people.[35]

McGarry accused the opposition of gambling with their belief that for all the talk of resuming the War, they would not have to actually do so. He admitted that he had indulged in a bit of gambling before but, he added wryly, never on a certainty that did not end up leaving him poorer.

To laughter and cries of “hear, hear”, he followed up his punchline with a stinger: “They are quite right, they are not going back to war; they are going back to destruction.”

McGarry finished with a pair of dark quips, the first a quote from the 19th century English writer Charles Lamb about the Chinese man who burnt down his home to roast a pig. The second was a Biblical allusion: “It was Samson who pulled down the pillars of the Temple. That was his funeral. I do not want to attend the funeral of the Irish nation.”[36]

It was on these eerily prescient citations – for him as well as for the country as a whole – that McGarry finished his contribution. It had been a rather ungainly series of points strung together, rather than a smooth narrative with a fixed beginning, middle and end. McGarry may have revealed his weaknesses as an orator that day, but his arguments had at least been impassioned and direct, making it one of the few times this otherwise reticent man expressed himself in public so forcefully.

The Civil War Breaks

McGarry could be pointed in his rhetoric but he was without rancour himself. On the 11th January, he felt the need to write to the Irish Independent in response to a letter published four days earlier from a Margaret McGarry. Her surname had led others to assume they were related. It was a misunderstanding Seán was keen to correct due to her choice of words: “I should be sorry that any relative of mine should refer to Mr. de Valera in the terms contained in the last paragraph of that letter.”[37]

There may have been little love lost between the two alumni of Lincoln Prison but standards had still to be maintained.

McGarry attended the Dáil session on the 9th September 1922, the first since the Treaty split, and added a dash of the martial by appearing in military uniform.[38] Now a commissioned officer in the nascent National Army, he found himself embroiled, like many of his colleagues, in the internecine conflict that was wracking the country.

At one point assigned to a detachment of soldiers guarding the Amiens Street Railway Station, McGarry was forced to cancel an interview with Hayden Talbot that Collins had set up due to the presence of enemy snipers making travel through the city “inadvisable,” as he put it, with admirable deadpan, to Collins in a phone-call from the station.[39]

On the other side of the War was Frank Henderson. A veteran of the Easter Rising like McGarry, Henderson found himself promoted to O/C of the Dublin IRA Brigade when his predecessor was arrested. His heart not in the fight, Henderson tried to hold back, even after the first batch of executions of anti-Treaty prisoners in November and the subsequent orders for him to assassinate pro-Treaty politicians. “I didn’t like the order,” he said simply, years later.

Free State soldiers during the Civil War

McGarry may have owed his life to such reticence, at least according to Henderson, who described him being out and about in town and frequently drunk in Amiens Street (McGarry apparently doing more than just guard duty there), with Henderson having to veto requests from his trigger-happy subordinates to kill him and other vulnerable targets then and there.

Although Henderson did not say whether he had had a role in the fatal shooting of Seán Hales TD that December, the fact that he would for the next sixteen years ask his son to say a mass for the dead man would indicate a guilty conscience.

After the Civil War, Henderson would find himself snubbed by Richard Mulcahy. This was apparently due to Mulcahy holding him responsible for Hales’ death…and perhaps for another, equally dark incident, one where McGarry was not so lucky.[40]

‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’

Tomasina McGarry was upstairs with her three young children at her Dublin home on the 10th December 1922, when there was a knock at the door shortly after 9 am. Startled but suspecting nothing, her mother and sister, who were visiting, went to answer.

Five or six men confronted them. Ignoring the protests that there were children upstairs, the intruders forced the women out into the street at gunpoint and rushed inside. They sprinkled the hall and sitting-room with petrol and set the place alight before running back out. The hall door was slammed behind them, inadvertently locking it and preventing the two McGarry women from re-entering.

Tomasina was oblivious to what was happening on the floor below, only becoming aware that something was very badly wrong when she saw the fire which spread rapidly throughout the house, filling it with noxious smoke.

Destruction of the Four Courts, Dublin, 1922

Between the flames, the door and 7-year-old Sarah’s disabled condition, escape was impossible. All the trapped family could do was to scream out of the window for help. Drawn by the sight of the two frantic women on the pavement, a crowd soon gathered but, as the Irish Times caustically put it: “as is usual on such occasions, suggestions seem to have been more numerous than acts.”

It was only when Sergeant Patrick Smith of the DMP arrived that anything was done. Smith tried and failed to force open the jammed door and had to resort to rushing through the neighbouring house to the backyard. From there, he was able to enter the burning building and, at great personal risk, reached the upstairs room where Tomasina and the three children were huddling together.

Meanwhile, two young men had succeeded where Smith had failed and battered open the front door, dashing up to the sergeant’s assistance. With this collective aid, the family members were removed from their burning home. By the time the fire brigade arrived, the building was too far gone to save and was left a gutted ruin.

Ruins in Dublin, 1922

Samson in the Temple

Sadie was uninjured and ‘merely’ in severe shock. Tomasina and the other two children, however, had received burns. The mother was driven to Richmond Hospital. She had burns to her hair, face and throat which were painful but not life-threatening. Sarah and nine-year old Emmet had also been scorched on various parts of their bodies. Taken to the Children’s Hospital on Temple Street, their conditions were ascertained as stable.

The attack on the McGarrys was just one of a number headlined by the Irish Times as ‘Incendiary Fires in Dublin’, all of which happened almost simultaneously around 9 am. The tobacco shop owned by James J. Walsh, Postmaster-General of the Free State, was broken into by armed men who “went about their business in the customary way” in setting it alight. Walsh had the luck to be out at the time, unlike the McGarrys or Michael MacDunphy, the Acting Secretary to the Free State Government.

As with the McGarrys, the MacDunphy family was home when intruders sprinkled petrol on the floor to set alight. Mrs MacDunphy was at least given the time to rescue her baby from upstairs while her husband phlegmatically asked the intruders for a chance to set his affairs in order before they shot him.

However, the assailants had only arson, not assassination, in mind and made no move to stop MacDunphy from escaping with his family. The fire brigade arrived in time to save the building from complete destruction, unlike those of the McGarrys and Walsh.

Meanwhile, a store belonging to Jennie Wyse Power, a Free State Senator, had homemade grenades thrown through its windows. Despite the milling crowds on the street outside, no one was hurt when the bombs shattered the windows and destroyed most of the shop fittings.  Unlike the other incidents, the building did not catch fire, making Wyse Power the luckiest victim of that morning’s orgy of destruction.[41]

The Four Courts, Dublin, Civil War

Black Shame

De Valera condemned the attack on the McGarry household, albeit not in very strident tones. Writing to a colleague two days later, de Valera drew a distinction between strikes on offices belonging to Free State officials, which were all very well and good, “particularly if these burnings are done effectively,” and those “as that of McGarry’s which were very badly executed” in addition to appearing “mean and petty” – apparently de Valera’s chief concern there.[42]

He might have used stronger words if he was to know the full end result. Despite the initial optimistic diagnosis for the wounded children, Emmet’s condition worsened. Five days after the attack, he died. At the vote of condolences passed by Dublin Corporation on the 18th December, one of the councillors described the occasion as a “most pathetic one”:

There was black shame on the valour of Ireland, which it would take a long time to wipe out. It was not war, but a stupid attempt to intimidate the expression of opinion by public men, and would avail nothing.[43]

The funeral of Emmet McGarry took place that same day. The cortege, large and impressive, left the Children’s Hospital, and was attended by a considerable number of Cabinet Ministers, Dáil Deputies and other notable individuals. His father was able to attend but Tomasina remained in hospital, still bed-stricken from her burns.[44]

Funeral during the Irish Civil War

Summary of a Career

The career of Seán McGarry as an Irish revolutionary followed the course of the revolution itself, from resistance to responsibility, from triumph to tragedy. Taken under the wing of Tom Clarke as a young man, McGarry was a witness, as well as a participant, to many of the intrigues and manoeuvres that made coups like the Howth Gun-running and the Easter Rising possible. A willing soldier as well as an able conspirator, McGarry spent much of the Rising by Clake’s side in the GPO, narrowly avoiding death on at least one occasion and helping to cover the escape.

He shared the imprisonment of his comrades and, like many of them, threw himself in the Sinn Féin movement upon his release. He continued on in the IRB, though his rise to its presidency and subsequent withdrawal mirrored the revival and waning of that organisation’s influence. One man neither he nor the Brotherhood could control was Éamon de Valera, and not even a spell of jail together could bridge the gap between the two men.

Although by nature low-key and content to be overshadowed by more charismatic men such as Michael Collins, McGarry played a central role in two public events. The first was his dramatic appearance at the Mansion House on March 1919 while still on the run from prison in an event carefully choreographed by Collins. The second was almost three years later in the Dáil debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty, where he sparred with de Valera and Mary McSwiney.

For all his service to the cause, McGarry was not to be spared the horrors of the subsequent Civil War. As a commissioned officer in the National Army, he was a tempting target for some among the enemy but the good will of others saved him. Such good fortune did not last forever. His family bore the brunt of the conflict when their home was burnt down, resulting in the death of his nine-year old son.


[1] Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976), p. 180 ; Henderson, Frank (BHM / WS 821), p. 17

[2] Bulmer Hobson Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 13,161/4/1

[3] Dore, Eamon T. (BHM / WS 392), p. 10

[4] Ó Broin, p. 163

[5] Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015), p. 289

[6] Dore, pp. 10-1

[7] McGarry, Tomasina. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: MSP34REF60225) p. 46

[8] Ó Broin, p. 182

[9] Irish Times (quoting from the Evening Herald), 05/03/1919

[10] Lynch, Michael (BHM / WS 511), p. 89 ; Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012), p. 128

[11] McMahon, Liam (BHM / WS 274), pp. 6-7

[12] Lynch, pp. 89-91

[13] McMahon, pp. 11-3

[14] Lynch, pp. 92-4

[15] Ibid, pp. 94-5

[16] Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012), p. 27

[17] Ibid, p. 79 ; White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958)  Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

[18] Irish Times, 07/12/1922

[19] McGarry, Seán (BMH / WS 368) ; McGarry, Seán. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: 24SP5125), p. 14 ; ‘McGarry, Seán’,  Dictionary of Irish Biography

[20] Ó Broin, p. 184

[21] McGallogly, John (BHM / WS 244), pp. 22-3

[22] Daly, Patrick G. (BHM / WS 814), p. 40

[23] Coogan, pp. 198, 712

[24] Florence O’Donoghue Papers, National Library of Ireland, MS 31,250/2

[25] Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012), pp. 44, 190-2

[26] McGarry, Tomasina. National Military Service Pensions Collection (Ref: MSP34REF60225) p. 36

[27] Ibid, p. 40

[28] Ibid, pp. 61, 50

[29] De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922), p. 42

[30] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922, 06/01/1921, p.  209. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online from the University of Cork: (last accessed on 07/12/2016)

[31] Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006), p. 114

[32] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, pp. 250, 256

[33] Knirck, pp. 154-5

[34] Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, p. 210

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid, p. 211

[37] Irish Independent, 11/01/1922

[38] Irish Times, 11/09/1922

[39] Talbot, p. 44

[40] Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998), pp. 7-9

[41] Irish Times, 11/12/1922

[42] Coogan, pp. 344-5

[43] Irish Times, 19/12/1922

[44] Ibid


Bureau of Military History Statements

Daly, Patrick G., WS 814

Dore, Eamon T., WS 392

Lynch, Michael, WS 511

McGallogly, John, WS 244

McGarry, Seán, WS 368

McMahon, Liam, WS 274



Coogan, Tim Pat. De Valera: Long Fellow, Long Shadow (London: Arrow Books, 2015)

Debate on the Treaty between Great Britain and Ireland, signed in London on the 6th December 1921: Sessions 14 December 1921 to 10 January 1922. Available from the National Library of Ireland, also online: (last accessed on 07/12/2016)

De Burca, Padraig and Boyle, John F., Free state or republic?: Pen pictures of the historic treaty session of Dáil Éireann (Dublin: The Talbot Press, 1922)

Dunne, Declan. Peter’s Key: Peter DeLoughry and the Fight for Irish Independence (Cork: Mercier Press, 2012)

Talbot, Hayden (preface by De Búrca, Éamonn) Michael Collins’ Own Story (Dublin: Edmund Burke Publisher, 2012)

Henderson, Frank (ed. by Hopkinson, Michael) Frank Henderson’s Easter Rising: Recollections of a Dublin Volunteer (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998)

Knirck, Jason K. Imaging Ireland’s Independence: The Debates over the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 (Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers Inc. 2006)

Ó Broin, Leon. Revolutionary underground: the story of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, 1858-1924 (Dublin: Gill and Macmillian, 1976)

White, Laurence William, ‘McGarry, Seán’ (1886-1958) Dictionary of Irish Biography (Royal Irish Academy, general editor McGuire, James)

Yeates, Pádraig. A City in Turmoil: Dublin 1919-1921 (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2012)



Irish Independent

Irish Times


National Library of Ireland

Bulmer Hobson Papers

Florence O’Donoghue Papers


National Military Service Pensions Collection

McGarry, Tomasina. Ref: MSP34REF60225

McGarry, Seán. Ref: Ref: 24SP5125

Understated Insurgency: The Carlow Brigade in the War of Independence, 1917-1921


When Patrick Kane sat down to give his Statement to the Bureau of Military History (BMH) in 1957, he was a man who believed he had little to show for his efforts. He had served as an adjunct in the Carlow IRA Brigade during the War of Independence – no easy task considering the difficulties which faced the brigade and the setbacks that often frustrated the best of its efforts.

Carlow Courthouse

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, he chose the losing side and was imprisoned, a misfortune which he had previously been able to avoid. Upon his release in 1924, his employment status was to follow the ebb and flow of Irish party politics. Kane had to resort to working abroad until his return to Ireland, two years after the election of his former Civil War comrades in Fianna Fáil.

For the next twenty years, he was able to work in several Irish industries until he was forced to retire. That a Fine Gael-led government was then in power made it unlikely that he would receive much support besides an inadequate pension, and so Kane faced the fraught prospect of seeking work again at the age of sixty-two. “And so, another of my ideals and ambitions has one down in dust and ashes under my feet” was the bleak verdict on which he closed his Statement.[1]

Implied Reproach?

Anyone looking at the activities of the Carlow Brigade can be prone to a similarly gloomy mood. William Nolan, a rare historian to have approached the subject, admitted that: “Carlow does not have a very active fighting story. This may sometimes have been adverted to by way of implied reproach.” As a counterbalance, Nolan reminded his readers of the leading role Carlow had played in the 1798 Rebellion, as if to reassure them that red blood did indeed run through Carlow veins, after all.[2]

Kane did not bother comforting himself with historical allusions when he retrospectively assessed the difficulties the brigade had faced: the constant flux within the Brigade leadership, the lack of weapons and ammunition, and the unfavourable nature of the local situation towards guerrilla activities, such as the intrusive presence of the Curragh Camp.[3]

Yet the grass is always greener on the other side, in war as with other things, and the difficulties that plagued the Carlow Brigade were not so obvious to its enemy. British captain E. Gerrard was in Carlow at the time of the Truce (or ‘the Armistice’, as he called it, muddling up his wars) and was struck by the level of preparation deemed necessary by the British soldiers stationed there. Every field the soldiers occupied was made into an enclosure by trees they had cut down.

Gerrard could not help but wonder what the rest of the country would be like if such defences were needed for only twenty miles from the Curragh. To Kane, the Curragh was an insurmountable obstacle for the Carlow IRA. To Gerrard, that the IRA could operate at all near the Curragh was enough to make him doubt whether the guerrillas could be defeated.[4]

British soldiers on parade, Carlow Barracks

Organising the Brigade

The use of the name of the ‘Carlow Brigade’ is something of a misnomer. The perimeters that defined the scope of its activities covered considerable chunks out of Counties Kildare and Wicklow, as well as a corridor of land from Laois along the Carlow-Kildare border, meaning that three out of the six battalion areas were outside of Co Carlow.[5]

The battalions and companies were expected to be to a degree self-sufficient. They could not turn to their parent Brigade for resources for the simple reason that there was little to give. At the same time a certain amount of discipline through the battalions was the norm, with Volunteers expected to wait for orders before acting on an idea, even if it had originated from them.

Cumann na mBan member

This was generally adhered to, however frustrating: Nan Nolan, a Cumann na mBan captain, was working as a nanny in the house of a retired British army general when her brother in the Ballon company asked her to leave open a window on a prearranged date for him and his colleagues to steal the guns kept inside. By the time official permission for this home-invasion materialised, Nolan had left the job, depriving the company of its inside-woman.[6]

Such policy bred a cautious attitude within the Brigade, discouraging risk that could lead to disaster. That two of the more ambitious attempts – the creation of a flying column, and an ambush on a RIC patrol near Barrowhouse – would result in heavy losses for those involved would serve to justify this conservative approach.

Relations between officers with their colleagues in the Kildare and Wicklow Brigades were cordial – something that could not always be said for relations between different Brigades – and they occasional worked in unison together. An attack on Auxiliaries posted at Inistioge by a Kilkenny battalion was to be assisted by men from the Carlow 4th battalion, though the plan was cancelled just as the main force had assembled. More successfully, Liam Stack, the intelligence officer for the Carlow Brigade, was able to sit in on a Kilkenny IRA military court in relation to a local dispute.[8]

Maintaining Intelligence

Carlow, Dublin St.

Volunteers recognised early on the urgency of knowing before the enemy knew, the key method of achieving this being control of the mail. Through surreptitious supervision of the post offices and the occasional direct intervention on the flow of mail through the county, Volunteers were able to forewarn other ones of impending arrests, head off leakage from spies, and allow the brigade to keep riding with the enemy punches. Without its members’ skill at information warfare, it is unlikely that the Brigade could have survived long as a functioning military force.

Kane was assigned by his Brigade superiors the task of collecting what information he could. The proactive Kane had himself been elected to the National Executive of the Post Office Clerks’ Association. This gave him the scope to travel and make contacts with sympathetic workers in other post offices around the country, and by early 1920, Kane was part of a cell operating in Carlow post office with access to postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications.

Four of them remained active up to the Truce, though the cell was not impregnable. The point-man for passing information onto GHQ in Dublin, Pádraig Conkling, was forced on the run in later 1920 after being threatened with shooting by Black-and-Tans. Another member, Michael Carpenter, was imprisoned in 1921 for being in possession of illegal wire-tapping equipment. His arrest led to raids on the homes of other post office workers including Kane’s, who from then on was frequently held up in the street by suspicious Crown patrols.[9]

Despite these setbacks and the increasingly straitened circumstances, the intelligence work continued on, leading to many a timely tip-off. Sometime in 1921 – conflicting accounts place the date in either mid-April or a few days before the Truce in July – a British army regiment entered Ballon with the aim of arresting the Volunteers in the company there. The wanted men were forewarned in time to stay away from their homes until the regiment and the danger had passed.

However, the Brigade was unable to achieve complete dominance over the flow of information. As part of the same series of raids that had unsuccessfully tried Ballon, British soldiers were able to net several arrests in the area around Rathvilly, indicating that not only did the soldiers know who to look for, but that there had been a failure in the Brigade’s early warning system.[10]

The Burning of the Barracks

The Carlow Brigade had not attempted anything of note until its enemy unexpectedly gave it an opening. As part of a countrywide policy by Dublin Castle to consolidate its police force into fewer, less exposed strongholds, a number of RIC barracks in Carlow were closed in April 1920.

Ballinree RIC Barracks, Co. Carlow

The abandoned buildings were razed by Volunteers when it became clear that their former garrisons would not be returning, giving the battalions their first taste of activity. That empty buildings make the easiest targets was an added bonus.

Even so, the campaign of destruction was not without incident: Richard Barry was badly burnt while helping to burn down Ballon Barracks. Craiguecullen Barracks was adorned by what Patrick Kane described as a “beautiful crest in cut-stone” which became a target for some Volunteers “with more enthusiasm than sense” who triumphantly hacked away at it.

A witness passed on their names in a letter to the police, though Kane, in his capacity at the post-office, was able to intercept the letter an hour later, after which the would-be informant was given twenty-four hours to leave the area. Kane described the culprit as a ‘loyalist’ though they may simply have been attempting to be civic-minded rather than political. Kane himself did not seem to have approved of the wanton vandalism but war was war.[11]



The Police Old and New


The official response was to increase police pressure. In Ballon, for example, the RIC increased their patrols to a daily basis, and were aggressive enough to threaten at gunpoint suspected Volunteers as they left Mass.[12] March 1920 saw the arrival of the Black-and-Tans into Ireland to buttress the RIC with their military experience. They were to earn a dark reputation: in one of many incidents, a group of them robbed a pub after being refused service and drove off threatening to blow the building up next time. Shots were fired over a passing civilian car on the road for good measure.[13]

Similarly, Black-and-Tans caused a scene demanding drink after-hours in a pub in Ballylinan; in the same edition of the newspaper covering this, it was reported that three RIC men had resigned, including one of three years’ service in Athy, with rumours of more to come. The RIC was a decaying force by late 1920, many of its long-standing members sloughing off and replaced by recruits of a very different temperament.[14]

In contrast, the Volunteers were thriving in the duties of an irregular police force even as the official one was forgetting its own. The Athy Battalion became the retrievers of stolen property from bicycles to timber, earning praise from the Carlow Nationalist newspaper for the “excellent manner in which they are protecting the property for the citizens.”[15] An opinion piece in the newspaper went as far as to criticise those who wanted to put “every kind of duty on to a body already overburdened by the honorary duties they have assumed.”[16]


September 1920

However excellently performed, police work was not what the Brigade had been intended for. September 1920 saw the Brigade finally stepping up its military efforts, albeit with mixed results.

Upon hearing of the Carlow DI visiting Tullow with only a driver to accompany him, a plan was hatched by the Tullow Company of the 3rd battalion to ambush him on his return route, but after two hours of waiting, the ambush team, including Daniel Byrne, was told that their target had prudently returned by a different route.[17]

Byrne was unclear in his Statement as to whether the intent was to kill, kidnap or rob the DI. The Tullow Company was able to launch an actual attack on an RIC patrol later in the month. According to Byrne, who was again involved, this was to rob the constables of their much-needed guns, though historian William Nolan was to claim that it was to kill two “particularly obnoxious” policemen.[18]

The ambushers had been forewarned that the RIC had been beefing up their security as of late, with four-strong units patrolling while armed. The advance party of the ambush also consisted of four men, with some others serving as backup. According to a witness, they numbered fifteen or more. This witness was Sergeant W. H. Warrington who provided a first-hand account of the ambush as part of his testimony at the resulting inquest.

War Comes to Tullow

Warrington had left Tullow Barracks with Constables Patrick Halloran, Timothy Delaney and John Gaughran, the first two at the front with the other pair following, when they encountered the ambush party waiting for them. There was a cry of ‘hands up’ from one of the party while simultaneously a shot was fired at the policemen, either from nerves or intent to kill.

Warrington promptly returned fire with his revolver, and in the resulting firefight, Warrington believed that between twenty and twenty-five shots were fired, the majority by the ambush party. If the ambushers had hoped that the element of surprise would overawe the policemen into surrendering, they were mistaken.

“For God’s sake, don’t shoot!” Warrington heard Halloran cry, his arm raised. When that proved futile, Halloran joined in instead with his own revolver. Warrington saw Delaney collapse, and one of the ambushers fall, rose and fell again, indicating a wound. The attackers retreated while Warrington and Halloran hurried to the safety of their barracks, from where they were reinforced by more of their colleagues.

Gaughan was found dead, his undergarments soaked in blood, in a nearby house where he had gone for cover before haemorrhaging to death from an abdomen wound. Delaney had died where he had fallen. Both revolvers of the slain men were found not to have been discharged and had remained fully loaded. Rumour was that one of the slain policemen had been in the last week of his job, having given in his resignation.[19]

Further proof of the “mischances of guerrilla warfare,” as William Nolan put it, was how the two dead men had been well-respected and liked, even by the Volunteers, while the intended targets had escaped with only minor injuries, a view supported by Nan Nolan, who remembered some of the shooters saying afterwards that the wrong men had been shot (although she was personally unsympathetic due to a earlier bout of comparatively mild questioning in the street by Constable Delaney).[20]

RIC men

A Hornet’s Nest

Byrne did not say whether the ambush party had taken the guns from the slain constables and thus could have something to show for their botched robbery, if robbery had been the primary motive. The resulting hornets’ nest astir may have made the ambush more trouble than it was worth. Two shops were burnt down in the middle of the night as a reprisal. Tullow residents heard a rifle crack, almost as if it was a signal, followed by a volley of about ten rounds in succession.

Then there was a bomb explosion, and the shop of the Murphy Brothers burst into flames, followed by the shop of William Murphy and Sons further up the road. The fire threatened to consume the rest of the street, despite the best efforts of a team of people using buckets of water, until the Carlow Fire Brigade arrived with fifty Volunteers in tow. Realising that the burning shops were lost causes, the Fire Brigade focused on containing the fire, operating the hose while the Volunteers pumped the water from the river.

Once the fires had finally died down and the damage could be assessed, it was found that in addition to the fire-gutted shops, another store had been robbed of £100 worth of goods. The damage to Tullow was more than just material: rumours of further reprisals drove almost two-thirds of the population to seek refuge in surrounding villages or country houses, making the following Friday fair the smallest on record.[21]

Numerous arrests by the RIC and British army followed, with suspects stripped to see if they had any wounds to indicate recent combat. Byrne threatened with a gun in his mouth by two constables before being released but forced to go on the run two days later upon hearing that he was still a wanted man. That was the effective end of Byrne’s time as an active combatant, for he remained a fugitive until the Treaty ten months later, and the rest of his Statement after the telling of his flight is brief.[22]

Fortune Favours the Bold?

The early months of 1921 saw another surge in Brigade activities. A flying column was formed which would be free to move through the territories of the different battalions, with the equipment necessary to take the fight to the enemy. On the 21st of April, however, the column was surprised by a Crown patrol and quickly overwhelmed with virtually all of its members captured.[23]

IRA members

Shortly afterwards, on 16th of May, an RIC patrol of four constables and a sergeant were fired at while cycling towards Barrowhouse, Co Laois, the territory of the 5th battalion. No one in that battalion would submit a Statement to the BMH, and all that Kane knew of it was that two Volunteers had been killed in what he described as a “badly sited ambush”, so we are dependent on the contemporary reporting of the Carlow Nationalist, which drew on the official reports from Dublin Castle and on what local people had heard.

Upon the first shots, the RIC patrol dismounted from their bicycles and returned fire. By the time Crown reinforcements arrived, the ambushers had been driven back, leaving behind two of their own: James Lacey and William Connor. From the nature of their wounds, death was judged to have been near instantaneous, Lacey having had a wound to his side, and Connor in the neck. Of the RIC patrol, one man had been wounded.

A number of weapons discarded by the fleeing ambushers were also found on the scene. The official version of events reported the number of ambushers to have been twenty, but people in the vicinity judged them to have been five to seven based on the noise of the guns heard.

The local mood was described by the Carlow Nationalist as having been one of consternation, as well it might. Shortly afterwards, a group of ten men, undoubtedly of the Crown forces, with their faces hidden under capes, descended on Barrowhouse, interrogating members of the Lynch family as to the identities of the ambush party, before burning down their home along with a Sinn Féin hall. That another Crown patrol would arrive later to ask for descriptions of the men involved would suggest that it had been an unauthorised action, unlike the one in Tullow the year before, where the DI displayed a marked disinterest in investigating.

The bodies of Lacey and Connor were released to their families for burial, leading the Nationalist to comment on the coincidences of two men who had been of the same age (26) and born on the same day, baptised on the same day, killed on the same day and were finally to be buried on the same day. The 5th battalion may have previously won praise for its honorary police work, but as a guerrilla force it had been a miserable failure.[24]

Lesser Battles

Both the formation of the flying column and the ambush on a decently-sized RIC patrol were risky gambits by the Brigade which showed an increasing confidence and a desire to accomplish as much as possible. However, their failures showed the dangers of pitting enthusiastic amateurs against trained soldiers, with the price paid in blood and lost weaponry.

Carlow Bridge

More successful for the Brigade were its lower-level forms of harassment. Blocking roads by felling trees across the road or damaging bridges was ideal in that it disrupted enemy patrols while avoiding dangerous contact with them. The men of the 3rd battalion were proficient at this type of work, managing one or two blockages a week, after learning when and where a Crown patrol was due to come by to maximise the frustration. Such activities were not always without consequences – the destruction of the bridge at Rathmore led to a big round-up and the arrest of a company captain – but it was preferable to the death or injury that a more direct form of warfare risked.[25]

Raids on mail trains or postmen during their rounds occurred throughout the early months of 1921 and up to the Truce, with authorities seemingly helpless to stop it. Such raids were done to check for any letters reporting to the RIC, with the bonus of police codes being found from one robbery. Often the mail would simply not be returned; in other cases, the letters would be returned after certain parts had been censored and marked ‘passed by the IRA’, helping to reinforce the sense that the guerrillas were one step ahead of anyone, whether the authorities or the public.[26]

Military barracks, Carlow

The RIC barracks remained a presence as long as their garrisons did. Outside their walls the Carlow Volunteers could be brazen, such as when a military truck waiting outside Carlow Barracks was hijacked and found burnt elsewhere. But while attacks were planned on various barracks, none were carried out. Considering the past times the Brigade had bitten off more than it could chew, that was probably just as well for it.[27]


Sergeant Boyle

Attacks on RIC personnel continued, preferably if they could be caught alone and by surprise. Even so, the targets had an inconvenient tendency to shoot back.

Sergeant Boyle was shot on the 23rd of March, 1921, while riding his bicycle back to Carlow Barracks from his residence in Graiguecullen. Boyle was hit twice, high in the back and in his left jaw under the eye, and while Kane believed that it was the wearing of a chain waistcoat that saved Boyle’s life, this armour obviously would have done nothing about the latter injury.

The wounded Boyle was able to fire back, driving off his attackers, and upon being found by sympathetic passer-bys, was transferred to Dublin Military Hospital where, so the Nationalist assured its readers, he had “every hope of a speedy recovery.” Sergeant Boyle was still alive by the time Kane submitted his BMH Statement in 1957, a tribute to either the skills of the Military Hospital doctors, the precaution of a chain waistcoat or the hardiness of Boyle.[28]

RIC men

James Duffy

A month later, thirty-year old Constable James Duffy, a Black-and-Tan, was walking with a friend, Harry James, when they were ambushed by three gunmen who had been waiting in a hedge. Two of them fired at Duffy, indicating that he was the primary target despite him being dressed in civilian attire, while the other fired at James, who fled despite receiving two wounds on his shoulder and hip. Duffy’s body was found to have been ridden with bullets, including one that had been fired under the chin at close-range, his assassins having left nothing to chance.

A son of a well-known horse-dealer, Duffy had served four years in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War for which he had been decorated. The shooting occurred in the territory of the 1st battalion, during the time when the flying column was encamped in the same area, so the attack can be attributed to either of these two groups.

According to Kane, Duffy was shot because he was investigating the area, using James as his spy, while the fact that the two men had been returning from a pub when attacked would suggest that the relationship between the two was a social one – two ideas that are, of course, not mutually exclusive.[29]

Sergeant Farrell

The last attempt by the Brigade to strike a blow before the Truce was the shooting and wounding of Sergeant Farrell in Borris, June 1921. The task was assigned to John Hynes, the tough, hands-on Vice O/C of the 4th battalion. Farrell had been on the GHQ’s ‘black list’ for some time, as he was reputed to have been part of the murder of Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain of Cork.

Hynes received his orders on Friday evening, giving him time to assess that the best opportunity for an attempt on Farrell’s life was in the morning when he left the improvised RIC barracks at the Protestant school, where he slept, for breakfast at his home in town. Hynes selected three men to accompany him as part of the hit squad. They were only just getting into position behind a wall when Farrell came into sight.

Hynes fired at Farrell, prompting the sergeant to shoot back before running into the cover of the wall and back towards the barracks. Farrell made to the barracks’ gate before collapsing in the road from his wounds. The ambush team retreated at that stage, either because the rest of the barracks’ garrison was returning fire at this point, according to Hynes, or because of the number of people who were heading to Mass made a clear shot too difficult (according to a second-hand account). Farrell was put on a motor car by his colleagues to the hospital where he recovered.[30]

Tough at the Top

The other casualty of the Farrell shooting was the position of the 1st Battalion O/C Pierce Murphy. He was demoted by GHQ for his “conscientious objections” in refusing to give orders to shoot Farrell, an awkward virtue in a guerrilla leader.[31]

The Carlow Brigade had a high turnover of its officers, either from insufficient aggression as with Murphy, internal politics (Patrick Kane believed Brigade O/C Eamon Malone had been retired following the Truce for not being a “complaisant yes-man”) or the ever-present danger of arrest.[32]

The last point was illustrated when the 3rd battalion O/C Michael Keating had to go on the run following the slayings of Constables Delaney and Gaughran. Keating left his Vice O/C William Donohue as the replacement O/C and promoting Matthew Cullen to Vice O/C accordingly. Both Donohue and Cullen were arrested a month later, forcing another round of rapid promotions to cover them. Little wonder, then, that Kane thought dimly of the quality of the officers left by the time the Truce came.[33]

Final Thoughts

In reviewing the Carlow parishes of Ballon and Myshall during the War of Independence, Nan Nolan felt confident enough to assert that: “Other people and places may have been lucky enough to get better headlines, but any man in Ireland who had been through these two parishes during the four glorious years spoke only the best of them.”

As an example of this, Nan Nolan related how the Ballow Company blockaded the village due to the arrival of over a hundred British soldiers in June 1921. The Volunteers were mobilised at night, and did not retire home in the early hours of the morning until all the roads had been blocked with timber and the bridges destroyed, denying entrance to Ballon by anything bigger than a bicycle. It was an undeniably impressive feat on the part of the Ballon Company in the swiftness, thoroughness and secrecy of its operation.[34]

However, it is also important to note that the blockade was done after the British convoy had already left Ballow. There was no suggestion at even a consideration to confront the enemy head-on. Going by the records of other units, it is hard to imagine any such attempt resulting in anything other than a bloody loss for the Brigade.

So there is more than a touch of the ridiculous to Nolan’s suggestion that the lack of fame for Carlow compared to that for other counties during this period can be attributed to opportune headlines. Nowhere was there anything to match the more dramatic actions undertaken by the likes of the Cork or Dublin Brigades, and nothing comparable to the Kilmichael Ambush, Crossbarry, the burning of the Customs House or Bloody Sunday.

Yet, by the time of the Truce, the Carlow Brigade was still a functioning force. How well it would have continued to be so is a debatable issue: Nolan’s optimistic take can be contrasted with Patrick Kane’s shock at the quality of the remaining officers. The Brigade had fought small, and when it had tried to fight big it had lost badly. But it had fought all the same, from the start of the War to the end, and in the most important area of accomplishment, it could boast of equal status to all the others: it had survived.

Carlow IRA veterans marching through Carlow, 1966


Originally posted on The Irish Story (24/09/2014)

See also: Bushwhacked: The Loss of the Carlow Flying Column, April 1921



[1] Kane, Patrick (BMH / WS 1572), pp. 27-9

[2] Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970, p. 582

[3] Kane, p. 13

[4] Gerrard, E. (BMH / WS 348), p. 8

[5] Nolan, Willian, p. 582

[6] Nolan, Nan (BMH / WS 1441), pp. 6-7

[7] Ryan, Thomas (BMH / WS 1442), p. 10

[8] Brennan, James (BMH / WS 1102), p. 12

[9] Kane, p. 3, 6-7

[10] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12 ; Fitzpatrick, Michael (BMH / WS 1443), p. 6 ; McGill, John (BMH / WS 1616), p. 10

[11] Fitzpatrick, p. 2 ; Kane, p. 11

[12] Nolan, Nan, pp. 5-6

[13] Carlow Nationalist, 28/08/1920

[14] Ibid, 14/08/1920

[15] Ibid, 03/07/1920

[16] Ibid, 11/09/1920

[17] Byrne, Daniel(BMH / WS 1440), p. 3

[18] Nolan, William, p. 585

[19] Nationalist, 18/09/1920 ; McGill, p. 5

[20] Nolan, William, p. 585 ; Nolan, Nan, p. 7

[21] Nationalist, 18/09/1920

[22] Byrne, pp. 3-4 ; McGill, pp. 5-6

[23] Kane, pp. 16-18

[24] Ibid, p. 9 ; Nationalist, 21/05/1921

[25] Ibid ; McGill, pp. 6-7

[26] Ryan, p. 5 ; Nationalist, 09/07/1921, 02/05/1921

[27] Nationalist, 18/06/1921

[28] Kane, p. 16 ; Nationalist, 26/03/1921

[29] Nationalist, 09/04/1921 ;  Kane, p. 16

[30] Hynes, John (BMH / WS 1496), pp. 16-7 ; Ryan, p. 9

[31] Hynes, p.17 ; Kane, p. 9

[32] Kane, p. 21

[33] Ibid, p. 22 ; McGill, p. 6

[34] Nolan, Nan, pp. 11-12



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Brennan, James, WS 1102

Byrne, Daniel, WS 1440

Fitzpatrick, Michael, WS 1443

Gerrard, E., WS 348

Hynes, John, WS 1496

Kane, Patrick, WS 1572

McGill, John, WS 1616

Nolan, Nan, WS 1441

Ryan, Thomas, WS 1442


Nolan, William, ‘Events in Carlow 1920-21’, Capuchin Annual 1970


Carlow Nationalist

Undefeated: The Attack and Defence of Clara RIC Barracks, June 1920


From the 1936 interview with Seán Robbins, former quartermaster of the 2nd Offaly Brigade:

Q. Our view about Clara Barracks is – whether we are right or wrong – that it was a major engagement for some and not a major engagement for others?

S.R. Yes.

Q. A man that was in the mill, how would he be situated?

S.R. That was one of the most dangerous positions.

Q. Was he in the actual fight?

S.R. Yes. And William’s house on the opposite side was dangerous.

Q. Was that the Sergeant’s house?

S.R. The sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. Was that William’s house?

S.R. William’s house was the opposite side, the mill was in front of the barracks and the sergeant’s house was attached to the barracks proper.

Q. It would have been a bad place?

S.R. It was. As a matter of fact there were two or three men lost there, two wounded and one died. Two mained [sic] and one seriously wounded.[1]

Record of the RIC

On the night of 2nd June 1920, the RIC (Royal Irish Constabulary) barracks in Clara, Co. Offaly (then King’s County), was the target of a coordinated assault by several local companies of the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The attack had been well-planned with a shrewd understanding in how to isolate a target beforehand and an array of sophisticated, if unsubtle, techniques against a fortified position.

The RIC, on the other hand, was finding itself to be an antiquated institution and one ill-prepared for the rigours of confronting a guerrilla war. The burden of pacifying the unruly country increasingly fell upon the shoulders of the British Army regiments stationed in Ireland.

RIC policemen

In assessing the state of the RIC by May 1920, an internal review of the Army’s performance during the Irish Troubles, Record of the Rebellion in Ireland 1919-1921 (drafted in 1922), found that its ally had:

…lost control over the population even in the towns and villages in which they were stationed, and it was becoming the exception rather than the rule for head constables and sergeants in command at outstations to do more than live shut up in their barracks.[2]

While not unsympathetic to the plight of the besieged police force, Record pointed to the excess of elderly timeservers in its ranks, men whose primary interest was their forthcoming pensions. To survive, the RIC would need recruits with the strength and vigour of youth.

Such fresh blood was to be found and would quickly taint the name of the RIC with their own: the Black-and-Tans and the Auxiliaries. It was a policy that would go horribly right but, in May 1920, no one amongst the British forces could deny that the police were in dire need of an overhaul:

In a military sense, the RIC were untrained and thus, though no fault of their own, they were greatly handicapped. Their military training was almost non-existent, their fire discipline nil, and our officers had to go round their barracks to help them as much as possible in the effective use of the rifle…hand and rifle grenades, rockets and Verey light signals, and in the defence arrangements of their barracks.[3]

The RIC barracks were a particularly weak link in the Crown chain. Many were in unsuitable positions, having not been built to defend against an organised assault. The one on Clara Barracks was singled out by Record as an example of such an attack and a demonstration of the tactics used by the IRA.[4]

RIC police and barrack

Clara Barracks

Clara Barrack stood in the middle of the town as a small two-storied stone building with a slate roof and steel shutters over its windows. At one end, it adjoined a large flour-mill and at the other were the quarters of Sergeant Somers’ wife and children.

Somers manned the building with an addition of eight armed constables. It made a formidable target, one that required the men of the Clara, Tullamore, Rahan, Streamstown and Ballycomber companies to come out in full force.

Main Street, Clara

At midnight, the tramp of marching feet could be heard through the streets of Clara. Volunteers had already been assigned to various tasks such as stealing tins of petrol from a nearby garage, cutting telephone wires or felling trees across all roads leading to the town. Reinforcements to the beleaguered barracks would not be coming quickly, if at all.

In addition, the barracks in the nearby village of Geashill was attacked. The fight there lasted for less than an hour and the only causalities it caused were smashed windows but it had succeeded in its primary aim as a feint.

In Clara, the door to the Somers’ family quarters was kicked in. With a touch of chivalry, the wife and children of the Sergeant were taken to the safety of the post office. At the same time, the windows of William’s shop in the main street, opposite the barracks, were smashed in by rifle-butts as men took up position. There, the men barricaded the top windows as best they could with mattresses, furniture and anything else at hand. The mill at the end of the barracks was likewise occupied.[5]

Strength in Numbers?

Despite the relative finesse of the operation, it was Seán Robbins’ opinion that the IRA’s superiority in numbers had also been a hindrance:

Q. You can see the trouble about Clara Barracks attack. There was a lot of men in the attack on Clara that were not in dangerous positions?

S.R. That is what happened there were too many men there. The Brigade Commandant mobilised too many. He mobilised the first and second battalion of Offaly I and also portion of Offaly II took part. That is what happened the men were on top of one another.[6]

The numbers of the Volunteers involved is uncertain. Two contemporary newspaper accounts reported numbers of 300 and 100-200. Though Record believed the 300 estimate an exaggerated one, Robbins also judged the participants to have been up to that same number, making it the most likely.[7]

The Fight

Inhabitants of Clara and nearby towns such as Birr were awoken that night by the sounds of gunshots and lightning-like flashes. The latter were from the Verey flare guns that the RIC garrison were sending up to call for aid. They made a striking impression on Seán O’Neill, one of the participants in the attack, as he later described:

While we were in the yard showers of multi-coloured verey lights came down on top of us. When the verey lights were fired they went right into the air like a star, then spread out like miniature fiery balls of many brilliant colours.[8]

Despite such eye-catching splendour being visible all the way to Birr, the garrison was on its own. From their positions in William’s shop and the mill, the Volunteers kept up a hail of fire on the barracks with an assortment of rifles, shotguns and revolvers. Despite several calls to surrender, the besieged police responded vigorously with their own guns through the apertures of the steel shutters covering the windows.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

In order to break the stalemate, those IRA men in the Somers’ family quarters and the mill attempted to break through the adjoining walls to the barracks. Posted to the rear of the building, O’Neill could hear the sledgehammers and crowbars at work in the Sergeant’s house whenever there was a lull in the fighting.


At this point, the two main sources for the attack – Record and O’Neill – diverge (though otherwise they are notably congruent). In the former, the assailants in the Somers’ home were able to use explosives to blow a hole through the wall into the first floor of the barracks and behind where a constable was busy firing from a window. The quick-witted policeman was able to throw several bombs through the sudden hole, throwing his enemy into disarray. The IRA mole team in the mill, on the other hand, failed in their own efforts to break through to the barracks.

O’Neill’s version, however, has it that it was the Volunteers in the mill who succeeded in blasting through. O’Neill says nothing about the success of the Volunteers in the Sergeant’s quarters, only that they were able to let off an explosion in the wall which apparently went nowhere.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

One of the Volunteers in the mill, Martin Fleming – in O’Neill’s account – shouted though the gaping hole for the defendants to surrender. Fatalities at this stage in the War of Independence had been relatively light, and the intent of the Clara attackers seems to have been to secure the barracks with the least bloodshed possible; otherwise, they could have thrown bombs through the hole in the wall as soon as they could. Fleming received for his troubles a bomb of the RIC’s own which almost blew his arm off.[9]


With the attack stalled and dawn starting to break, the Volunteers decided by 3 am to retreat. They had suffered two other causalities besides Fleming, both while posted in William’s shop: Patrick Seery from a bullet to the chest and Ned Brennan in the hip. It was not surprising that Robbins would remember that position as a dangerous one.

O’Neill remembered Robbins helping Seery to a priest’s house to be anointed, the prognosis clearly a grim one. O’Neill, for his part, assisted in taking Fleming and Brennan to the same priest, an experience that was to haunt him:

It was not a pleasant scene in view of the failure to take the barracks to see the footpath strewn with the blood of our men. I shall not easily forget the condition of Seery who had a large hole in his chest and Fleming whose hand, from above the wrist, was almost completely severed.[10]

It was not until 5:30 am that Tullamore Barracks received news of the attack, and 6:30 when army reinforcements arrived in Clara, by which time the attackers were long gone.

Despite their failure to capture the barracks, the Volunteers had at least been able to isolate it, perhaps a little too well: the Birr-Roscrea train was delayed that morning by almost two and a half hours due to tampered wires, and a motorist from Mullingar crashed his car against a tree across the road. Unharmed, the driver and his passenger made the rest of the journey to Athlone by foot.

Record proudly recorded what the enemy had had to abandon in their haste to depart: “One rifle, a shot gun, several bombs, articles of clothing, full tins of petrol and a sprayer.” It was a good indicator of the armoury the Offaly IRA had at its disposal.[11]

The Westmeath Guardian told of the blood found on the scene as well as a cap with a bullet-hole found in the peak, testifying to the intensity of the fight. Another newspaper, The Leinster Chronicle, was pithier: left behind on the scene had been a “considerable quantity of arms, petrol and blood.”[12]

Patrick Seery

The RIC garrison had suffered no causalities. Of the IRA, Brennan and Fleming survived their injuries, though the latter lost his arm and wore an artificial one in later years.[13]

Seery, however, lingered on before dying in September while at the Mater Hospital, Dublin. He was 31 years old. His funeral in his native district of Tyrrellspass, Co. Westmeath, was a grand affair and a show of strength by his comrades. Thousands of Volunteers from the Offaly and Mullingar battalions joined the mile-long funeral procession, marching two deep while keeping time with the Tullamore Pipers’ Band.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

Upon reaching the cemetery, the tricolour-draped coffin was borne on the shoulders of Volunteers, and a military salute was fired over the grave. The farewell did not go entirely without a hitch. A member of the firing party was impressed by his revolver’s lack of kick, saying that he had never fired a finer gun. On closer inspection, it transpired that the revolver had not fired at all due to dud ammunition, not that anyone had noticed at the time.

While reporting on the funeral, the Westmeath Guardian neglected to mention the cause of death. The Leinster Chronicle, bolder or better informed, said that the deceased had perished from wounds received from the police, though it did not link him specifically to the attack on Clara Barracks four months ago.[14]

Those Left Behind

In death, Seery was indisputably a hero. His surviving family would not find thing so simple. In 1924, two of his siblings, Joseph and Jane, made separate claims to the new Free State government for compensation for their brother’s death.

The officer who initially investigated the claims on behalf of the Army Pensions Board came back with a strong recommendation for them to be accepted. In addition to being one of the first IRA men killed in the War of Independence, Seery had been “held in the highest esteem in his Brigade, and his death was a big loss” to his comrades.

The loss to his bereaved kinsfolk was also keenly felt, according to the investigating officer. As Patrick had been the chief breadwinner of the family, his surviving three siblings were in dire straits, not to mention poor health, without him and their father, who had died of shattered nerves three years after his son.

Eschewing subtlety altogether, the investigator appealed for the healing of Civil War divisions: “payment of a pension would enhance the reputation of the Government in an area where it has not too many friends.”[15]

Unimpressed, the Army Pensions Board complained that the initial report on the Seery family’s affairs had been contradictory and padded with hearsay. A follow-up investigation found that the family’s finances were in considerably better health than they had let on. They had not been dependant on Patrick’s earnings and none of his siblings were incapacitated through poor health. Consequently, both claims were rejected.

A later claim by a second sister, Anne, in 1934, and a second attempt by Joseph Seery were likewise turned down due to their claims of dependency being unproven. Patrick Seery may have died for a free Ireland but not necessarily a credulous one.[16]

The Crown Response

Less than a fortnight after Seery’s funeral, Somers, now Head Constable, applied to the Tullamore Quarter Session Court for compensation. The interior of his family’s quarters had been wrecked by the fighting four months ago, and furniture of good and expensive quality reduced to matchwood. Judge Fleming – any relation to Martin Fleming unknown – regarded Somers’ request for £120 as moderate compared to those claimed elsewhere from barrack attacks and generously amended the amount to £150 before awarding it.[17]

RIC policemen

Head Constable Somers was not the only one who benefitted from the successful defence of Clara Barracks. The RIC victory there had, in the professional opinion of Record, helped raise the morale of the beleaguered police force. It also sharpened the military response of the British authorities, showing them the weak spots that needed to be strengthened:

  1. The RIC to be concentrated in larger garrisons than before.
  2. Directive boards to be set up at all military look-out posts, and the firing of alarm signals from neighbouring barracks to be practised.
  3. Instructions in the care and firing of rockets and other alarm signals to be offered to soldiers and RIC.
  4. Barracks in obviously untenable positions to be evacuated.
  5. Military lorries to carry equipment that would help clear roadblocks, road trenches or damaged bridges, such as cross-cut saws, hawsers and temporary bridging equipment.

Record claimed that the repulse of the attack also had a depressing effect on the local IRA. If that was so, then there were no signs of it. Clara Barracks did not last long after its successful defence. It was one of the outposts evacuated by its garrison, and was promptly razed by the vengeful Volunteers.[18]

Unintentionally undermining its own optimistic take on the situation after the Clara Barracks defence, Record listed the Clara-Tullamore as one of the “bad districts” due to the lack of Crown forces there. Regardless of its defeat, the Offaly IRA had been given free rein. One side was undefeated but it was the other who had won.[19]

See also: Sieges and Shootings: The Westmeath War against the RIC, 1920


[1] Military Service Pensions Collection, MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[2] Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009), p. 30

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, p. 31

[5] Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, Seán (BHM / WS 1219), pp. 88-89 ; Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920

[6] MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 48

[7] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; MA/MSPC/RO/178, p. 49

[8] O’Neill, p. 89

[9] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Sheehan, p. 173 ; O’Neill, p. 89

[10] O’Neill, p. 90

[11] Sheehan, p. 173

[12] Leinster Reporter, 05/06/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 04/06/1920

[13] O’Neill, p. 90

[14] Leinster Reporter, 11/09/1920 ; Westmeath Guardian, 10/09/1920 ; Dockery, Seán (BHM / WS 1711), p. 7

[15] Military Service Pensions Collection, A11127, pp. 5, 11

[16] Military Service Pensions Collection, 1D233, pp. 3, 46, 50-51 ; 33APB49, p. 4

[17] King’s County Chronicle, 21/09/1920

[18] Sheehan, p. 173

[19] Ibid, p. 74



Sheehan, William. Hearts & Mines: The British 5th Division, Ireland, 1920-1922 (Cork: Collins Press, 2009)

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Dockery, Seán F., WS 1711

O’Neill, Seán, WS 1219


King’s County Chronicle

Leinster Reporter

Westmeath Guardian

Military Service Pensions Collection





Kidnapped in Mullingar: An IRA Operation and its Aftermath, 1920

The Missing

On 14th October 1920, two judicial officers drove out of Mullingar, Co. Westmeath, in the direction of the town of Castlepollard. There, they were to supervise the Petty Sessions at the Crown Court. They never made it. Somewhere along the way, Maxwell Moore, Resident Magistrate, and G.R. Hyde, Justice of the Peace, were abducted by armed men. Police and soldiers from the nearby British garrison scoured the area, only to find no trace of the vanished officials.

That telegraph wires between Mullingar and Castlepollard had been cut suggested a level of planning. Although the newspapers at the time did not state as such, no one was in any doubt that this was the work of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) as part of its guerrilla war against the British state in Ireland.[1]

In response, Crown forces would conduct a search operation throughout the countryside that had grievous consequences for the local IRA. The Mullingar area had been relatively untouched by the conflict that was affecting the country. The kidnapping of the two magistrates would ensure that that no longer held true.



The Mullingar IRA had always struggled to define itself amongst the rest of the organisation. There was even uncertainty as to when it became a brigade in its own right instead of than a battalion affixed to another – a couple of sources have it happening after the Conscription Crisis in early 1919, with another believing it as being sometime in 1920.[2]

Before, the Mullingar Volunteers had been attached to the North Offaly Brigade and then to the Athlone one. They were, according to the Athlone IRA O/C, confused into thinking they became a brigade sooner than they did due to an agreement between him and GHQ in mid-1920 that the Mullingar battalion would receive its orders directly from Dublin rather than Athlone as before.[3]

Whatever its exact status, the Mullingar IRA suffered from the same problems afflicting many other units throughout the country during the War of Independence: a scarcity of weapons and the lack of opportunities with which to use the few guns they did possess. But by October 1920, the Mullingar leadership had seen a chance to rectify the latter failing.

The Plan

Returning to the Mullingar IRA at this time was James Maguire. He had been hiding out in Liverpool to escape a murder charge of a Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policeman, something he denied any knowledge of and which was probably true considering how he continued to deny it even years later.

Upon his arrival back, Maguire was invited to a couple of meetings with Mullingar IRA officers about possible operations. Maguire was surprised that these senior men were willing to talk so openly with him despite his lack of a rank. He suspected that they had erroneously assumed he had picked up some sort of military experience while in Liverpool, although he did not disabuse them of the notion.

In any case, Maguire was eager to assist in any way he could. It was when Maguire was talking to Patrick McCabe, the O/C of the Castlepollard Company (there being four such companies altogether in the Mullingar IRA) that the germ of the kidnap plan was formed.

This plan dovetailed neatly into the persistent campaign by the Volunteers to undermine the Crown courts. For the most part this had been a success, with local people opting for the underground Sinn Féin ones despite their proscribed status. The Crown courts found themselves isolated, frustrated and starved of manpower.

Sinn Féin Court, Westport Town Hall, 1920

On the 20th of the same month as the kidnappings, the Mullingar Petty Sessions found that of the twenty-five people summoned for grand jury duty, only eleven had shown up, and two of those would not even answer to confirm their names. The court session was adjourned due to the insufficient numbers, an act of surrender worrying enough to be included in the monthly RIC report to Dublin Castle.[4]

This malaise reached the level of the Crown magistrates, many of whom stopped attending their own courts. That Moore persevered in being the stubborn exception, despite several warnings, alone made him a target.

McCabe explained to Maguire another, more immediate reason: fifteen of the Volunteers in his company had been brought to court by the RIC on trivial charges, such as a lack of light on their bicycles. Moore was set to hear these cases in Castlepollard. Kidnapping him would not only be a blow against the British system, it would also save McCabe’s men from having to face an unfriendly court.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

Maguire forwarded the idea to John Macken, the Mullingar O/C, and they agreed to seize Maxwell as suggested. Although Maguire accredits McCabe with originating the idea, McCabe made no mention of doing such a thing in his Bureau of Military History (BMH) Statement. When McCabe came round to describing the incident, it was as someone who had had nothing to do with it. Either Maguire had misremembered the conversation or McCabe had forgotten had forgotten all about it by 1956, when he composed his Statement.[5]

The Preparation

It was decided to waylay Moore as he neared Castlepollard, where the road ran to a steep incline that would force his car to slow. Maguire and Macken agreed between them to bring a few men each to assist. One of McCabe’s choices was the man assigned to drive the car, clearly a specialised skill at the time.

On the appointed day, the selected ambush party arrived at the site on bicycles – the IRA vehicle of choice in the War – which were then dumped. Two hills on either side of the road formed a valley and a sentry was assigned on each to keep watch for the magistrate’s car. Brushwood along the road provided cover for the rest.

It had been arranged that one of the sentries would warn the others with a white flag if the car came with an escort, in which case the operation would be aborted and the target allowed to continue on unmolested.

After several cars had passed by, oblivious to the posse lurking in the undergrowth, a signal from one of the sentries alerted his comrades that their quarry was approaching. A ladder was thrown across the road with a couple of large stones on either end.

The Kidnap

When the lone car came to a halt, the Volunteers were surprised to see that there was a second man in the car with Moore. They had not been expecting G.R. Hyde as well. Deciding not to look a gift-horse in the mouth, the ambushers surrounded the car and demanded the occupants step out.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

Newspaper reports were to describe the kidnappers as an ‘armed party’ but only two of them had a weapon – Macken with a .32 revolver and Maguire holding a .45 Webley – due to the paucity of guns in the Mullingar IRA. The kidnappers had come prepared in case their targets were armed, though it turned out that they were not.

The Volunteers put a few stones behind the back wheels of the car to prevent it rolling downhill. Their protests ignored, Moore and Hyde were forced into the backseat where they were bound and blindfolded. With a theatrical touch, women’s hats were draped over their heads in case police or military were encountered en route, though it is debatable as to how well such disguises would have worked.

In any case, the kidnappers had a more immediate concern: starting the car. The designated driver was called from further down the road where he had been waiting. As he was already known to the victims, presumably from an earlier court session, it was feared that they would have been able to identify him.

The Getaway

The driver fumbled about, trying to start the car but the vehicle was of an unfamiliar make and its controls were unknown to him. With the fear of being stranded on the road, Maguire threatened Moore at gunpoint to tell the driver how to start the engine. Determined to be as unhelpful as possible, Moore, a veteran of the British army, would only tell them nothing more than that the starter was on the steering wheel.

Eventually the car was started. Maguire and his hijackers drove their new-found companions away while McCabe’s made themselves scarce on their bicycles. The car was later found in a wrecked state, the official report attributing the damage to “unskilled driving.”

While under cross-examination in April 1921, in his efforts at compensation for the loss of his vehicle, Moore was scathing in his description of the ineptitude displayed by his abductors:

Solicitor: Had you to show them [how to drive]?

Moore: Yes; I and Mr Hyde were blindfolded and I was compelled to instruct the driver how to drive the car…the man knew nothing about driving the car, and when he put off the clutch it leaped and bounded along the road.

Solicitor: It was full of life.

Moore: Yes, full of life (laughter).[6]

The Promotions

Still blindfolded, the two prisoners were driven to the Ballymanus area, their captors careful to use byroads to better avoid detection. The car arrived at the end of a country lane by Lough Sheelin, where the two prisoners were lodged in a disused farmhouse, under guard by the local Volunteers.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

The operation was to garner promotions in the Mullingar IRA, whether wanted or not. Shortly after the kidnapping, a pair of officers arrived from GHQ in Dublin for a meeting in Mullingar. As Maguire had made no report of the kidnapping to anyone, he was unsure as to whether these out-of-towners knew about it. Maguire did not attend the meeting but, afterwards, saw McCabe talking to the GHQ men and showing them a written report of the operation. Seeing Maguire, McCabe waved him over and announced him as: “The man responsible. That’s the man who captured them.” Maguire was the hero of the hour.

The two GHQ officers then announced some unexpected news. The Mullingar O/C was stepping down, leaving his post vacant. The officers told McCabe that they wanted him to take the command. McCabe tried talking himself out of it but, when the others insisted, asked Maguire if he would help him. When Maguire agreed to do so, McCabe relented, his first order being to promote Maguire to Vice O/C.

Both Mullingar men walked away from the conversation higher up the military hierarchy. It was perhaps not the most professional way of conducting business but then, Maguire had already proven himself to be a daring, hands-on operative and a guerrilla outfit has to make do with what it has.[7]

IRA/Irish Volunteers

The Holdings

The Mullingar IRA followed up the success of their mission by mostly forgetting about it. No one seems to have discussed what they would do with the prisoners once caught. Compounding the problem were the threats from the British army to burn a town – either Mullingar or Castlepollard – if the two prisoners were not released.


Those who had created the situation seemed less inclined to take responsibility now. Maguire heard that someone from the Mullingar IRA staff was looking for him with intent to ask for the prisoners to be released but he remained unresponsive. After a few days, Moore and Hyde, still blindfolded, were taken to Co. Clare where they were set loose. From there, the freed men made their way to the nearest RIC barracks.

It is unclear how long they had been held; according to Macken, between three or four days, while Maguire thought between eight or ten. However, the actual length of time seems to have been relatively short, as newspaper accounts described them as being released on the 16th after disappearing on the 14th.

Adding to the confusion, the monthly RIC report on the state of the county had Moore and Hyde as being taken on the 13th and released on the 14th, but it almost certainly an error considering the consistency of the newspapers covering the story.

Unfortunately for the Volunteers involved, their unwilling guests had not been idle during their captivity, having covertly cut notches and other marks on the walls of their prison for later identification. Before release, their captors had threatened them with worse should they ever sit on a Bench again. Unfazed, the former detainees were now in a position to turn the tables.[8]

The Arrests

Patrick McCabe was coming out of Castlepollard Chapel after attending Rosary service with a number of others, including Volunteers in his battalion, when they found themselves surrounded. It was a mixed force of police and military of the sort that had been combing the area since the release of the magistrates.

Some of the arrestees were released almost immediately, eight were not. McCabe was one of those held back to be searched. He had the bad luck to be carrying with him on that day a sketch plan of the RIC Barracks in Castlepollard. McCabe was taken with the other prisoners to the same barracks he had been planning on attacking, then transferred to the Mullingar one before being sent to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, pending the court-martial which would not take place until December.


True to form, the prisoners refused to issue pleas or recognise the legitimacy of the Crown court at their hearing. Of the twelve accused of the unlawful conspiracy to assault and imprison Moore and Hyde, eight were found innocent and the other four were not. McCabe was among the latter, though the most he had to do with the conspiracy was to suggest it. He would remain in Perth Prison in England until January 1922 when he was released under the terms of the Truce that ended the War of Independence.[9]

The Fugitive

John Macken had a more convoluted experience with the justice system. Faced with the probability of being arrested, he went on the run, having already had his home in Castlepollard raided by the military.

One night, another search party found the house where he was hiding. Macken had taken the precaution of sleeping in the barn and heard the soldiers threaten the owner of the home and his young son. The boy had the presence of mind to tell his questioners that he had seen the wanted man on his way to Mullingar a few days previously. The search party left, saying they would return; at this point, Macken slipped away to find another bolthole.

Castlepollard square

After a fortnight as a fugitive, Macken somehow persuaded himself that the authorities would not continue their search during a market day. He thus returned home with the intention of helping his father on the farm, and was in the house when a lorry pulled up at the door. Macken’s first thought was to go through a back window before realising he had already been seen and risked being shot if he tried to flee.

As with McCabe, Macken was taken to Mullingar Barracks before being forwarded to Mountjoy. There he came face to face with his former captive, Moore, on an identification parade. However, Moore’s memory was not as sharp as his survival skills and passed over Macken for someone else who had had nothing to do with his kidnap.

Macken remained in Mountjoy for another three weeks before being released. By that time, he had developed a bad cold and had to stay at home in bed, under the assumption that he would not be arrested again. This was despite warnings to the contrary from Maguire, who obviously had a firmer grasp on the situation.

After four days back in Castlepollard, Macken’s optimism was once again disproved when a Crown patrol arrived to take him back into custody. After a succession of different jails, Macken found himself in the internment camp at Ballykinlar, Co. Down, where he stayed until December 1921 in keeping with the general release of war prisoners.[10]

Ballykinlar Internment Camp

The Remains

blacktans2The wholesale round-ups that followed the kidnap and release of the two judicial officials gutted the local IRA. Even by the following year, the ferocity of the official response had not abated: in February 1921, practically all the male inhabitants of the town of Delvin, Co. Westmeath, and those nearby were taken into custody and released with the warning that they would be held responsible for anything untoward that happened in the area.

One of the three who were not released was James Flynn – unsurprisingly so, given how Maguire remembered him as a “good I.R.A. man.” He was the brother of Michael Flynn, one of those first arrested in connection with the kidnappings. According to a newspaper account, Michael had had no active connection with the IRA, leaving the question of his involvement in the abductions, if any, uncertain.

Unlike McCabe and Macken, Michael never made it out of prison alive, dying of heart failure, aged 32, in Mountjoy on 26th October before he could make it to trial with the rest of the accused. Another brother, Christopher, had identified the body, although in keeping with the family’s Republican outlook, he refused to recognise the inquiry. James had been undeterred by his brother’s lonely death, though he was no more successful at avoiding imprisonment.

Maguire remained at liberty but many of those he knew and trusted were gone, leaving him with the lonesome task of rebuilding the Mullingar command structure from the ground up. At an IRA staff meeting in Mullingar, Maguire found himself promoted by default to command of the four Mullingar companies, or rather, what was left of them.

This was over his objections but it was not as if there were many other options. Despite his reservations, Maguire gave in and accepted. There was nothing else for him to do but try his hardest and hope for the best.[11]


See also: Among the Philistines: Dissent and Reaction in the Mullingar IRA Brigade, 1921

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



[1] Westmeath Guardian, 15/10/1920

[2] Daly, David (BMH / WS 1,337), p. 8 ; Reilly, James (BMH / WS 1,593) p. 6, McCabe, Patrick (BMH / WS 1,551), p. 9 ; Flynn, Bartholomew (BMH / WS 1,552), p. 7

[3] O’Meara, Seumas (BHM / WS 1504), pp. 29-30

[4] WG, 22/10/1920 ; Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland), POS 8552

[5] Maguire, James (BMH / WS 1439), pp. 13-14 ; McCabe, p. 13

[6] Maguire, pp. 14-5 ; Macken, John (BMH / WS 1550), pp. 12-4 ; WG, 15/10/1920 ; 08/04/1921

[7] Maguire, pp. 16-7

[8] Ibid, p 15 ; Macken, pp. 13-4 ; WG, 24/12/1920 ; POS 8552

[9] McCabe, pp. 13-4 ; WG, 12/11/1920, 24/12/1920

[10] Macken, pp. 13-6

[11] WG, 18/02/1921, 29/10/20 ; Maguire, pp. 16-8



Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

Flynn, Bartholomew, WS 1552

Macken, John, WS 1550

Maguire, James, WS 1439

McCabe, Patrick, WS 1551

O’Meara, Seumas, WS 1504

Reilly, James, WS 1593

Westmeath Guardian








Police reports from Dublin Castle records (National Library of Ireland)

POS 8552

In the Presence of His Enemies: The Controversy of James Dalton, May 1920

The Murder

Clare St., Limerick

On the 15th of May 1920, James Dalton was making his way back to his house at 5 Clare Street, Limerick, at the end of another unremarkable day. He had left home earlier at around noon for his work as a clerk in the Electric Power Station on Frederick Street, and afterwards had joined his father-in-law in a pub sometime after 6 pm. Half an hour later, the two men had left the premise and went their separate ways. If Dalton was in any way troubled or concerned for his safety, he gave no sign of it.

Within a couple of hundred yards from his residence and within sight of his thirteen-year old daughter, Kitty, James Dalton was accosted. The initial report numbered the assailants as from four to six, though Kitty saw three, one in front of her father and the other two on either side. Testifying afterwards, Kitty could not identify any of them, only that they were young and one was tall.

Their quarry surrounded, the men opened fire point-blank with revolvers and continued doing so even after Dalton had collapsed face-first onto the street, one man lingering while the others made their escape long enough to put two more rounds into the back of his prone target. Caught in the line of fire was six-year old Elly Lowe, struck by a stray shot that left a jagged hole in her calf.

Both victims were rushed to hospital. While Elly Lowe’s wound was ruled not to be a serious one, Dalton was pronounced “life extinct”. Six bullets were found in him: three in his front, one embedded over his heart, one lower in the same region, with the other passing far enough to lacerate his liver, two more in his back, and the last in his hand, close to the thumb. Four of the injuries by themselves would have been enough to be fatal. The close proximity of his assassins and their cold thoroughness had ensured that Dalton’s chances of survival had been almost non-existent.

The 48-year-old deceased had left behind a widow and eleven children.[1]

Limerick 1922(1)

The Mystery

Members of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) arrived at the scene of the crime. That some of them felt the need to be armed while on duty was an indicator in itself that Limerick was not a city at peace with itself. Though the police stayed for some time, no arrests were made. No arrests would ever be made.

As the murder had been committed in an isolated district of the city, it took until sometime after 7 pm, over half an hour later, for the news to be widespread. There was shock at the slaying of a man who had played leading roles in a number of sporting, political and military spheres, a fact laid bare by his brother as Joseph Dalton took the stand at the resulting Crown court of inquiry in Limerick.

A skilled and versatile athlete, James Dalton had boxed as a middle-weight champion, and had been a trainer for the All-Ireland Limerick hurling team. He had been heavily involved in the rise of the now ascendant Sinn Féin party, having campaigned for its East Clare and North Roscommon Parliamentary election victories, as well in the unsuccessful by-election for South Armagh where he had impressed an acquaintance as “physically a fine figure of a man.”[2]

As a patriot he could not be faulted, having assembled with the rest of local Irish Volunteers on Easter Week four years ago for what would be for them an aborted Rising. It was true, Joseph added, that his brother had not had the same interest in the Volunteers once the movement really took off after the Rising although he had remained with them. In any case, he had already proven his willingness to lay down his life for his country.

As Joseph recounted in the Crown courthouse his brother’s multiple careers, it would have seemed baffling that anybody would want to kill such a prominent and well-connected individual. But as Joseph continued on, it became clear that things had been amiss for some time.[3]

Limerick Courthouse

The Suspicion

Not included by Joseph in his testimony was how Dalton had also been shot at two months before and wounded with the loss of a finger, probably from throwing up his hand in a defensive gesture. Graffiti on the streets had announced that the matter was far from over: “A bullet is waiting for Dalton the spy.” Undaunted, he had continued on with his life as normal. Perhaps he had attempted to take matters into his own hands and believed the matter resolved.[4]

What this matter may have been was strongly hinted at by Joseph as he continued on with his testimony: in December 1919, Dalton had been seen entering the house of a RIC officer and leaving it sometime later. This had given rise to what Joseph called a “scandalous report” and though he did not spell it out, it was obvious that the scandal lay in the implication that Dalton was acting as a spy for the police.

No charges were made against Dalton, either from Sinn Féin or his fellow Volunteers. It was all rumour, but rumours were enough to kill or be killed over as Ireland became increasingly mired in insurgency and counter-insurgency.

Eager to silence these suspicions before they claimed any more from him, Dalton had met with a representative of the recently formed Dáil Éireann on St Stephen’s Day of 1919, demanding a full examination to clear himself in the eyes of his peers. This request had been duly forwarded on. Some time later, Dalton had gotten the inquest he had sought, the documented results of which were presented by Joseph to the Crown courtroom:

Dáil Éireann Official Verdict in case of Mr James Dalton. The main point was not in dispute that the plaintiff (Mr Dalton) had entered certain premises at 1am and remained there til morning, the fact which had brought suspicion upon him.

Having heard the evidence I was of opinion that the plaintiff had been guilty of a grave indiscretion and error of judgement in acting as he had done, and that his conduct very naturally gave rise to much suspicion.

As against this I was certain of opinion that there had been no guilty or dishonest notice on his part, and that the suspicions in this respect had been unfounded.[5]

Plainly, however, not everyone had agreed with that verdict.

This was the first time this exoneration had been made public, although, according to Joseph, these Dáil findings had been common knowledge on the streets of Limerick a week before the shooting, further underlining for his audience the senselessness of the murder, and that an innocent man had died for nothing.

A Question of Courts

It was a peculiar scene: Joseph Dalton using the Crown court to vindicate his brother by airing the ruling of another court that was regarded as an illegal entity by the one he was standing in. Of those in attendance, only the Crown representative, District Inspector (DI) Marrinan, seemed to recognise the contradiction and rose to question the witness on the stand.

When Marrinan asked Joseph if he had been present at the Dáil inquiry in question, J.J. Dundon, the solicitor for the Dalton family, objected, accusing the DI of trying to trick the witness into incriminating himself. Upon Marrinan promising as a man of honour not to take such an advantage, Joseph confirmed that he had indeed been present at the Dáil inquiry.

Marrinan continued his line of questioning, only to be met by a wall of repetition:

DI Marrinan: Was the verdict given in open court?

Joseph Dalton: It was forwarded to the proper authorities.

DI Marrinan: What I want to know – was it promulgated in open court at the time your brother was tried?

Joseph Dalton: It was forwarded to the proper authorities.

After getting Joseph to confirm that James Dalton had been present at his own trial, DI Marrinan pounced with an unpleasantly pointed question: what would have been the consequences if James Dalton had been found instead guilty by the Dáil inquiry? It did not take a legal mastermind to understand what the District Inspector was insinuating: that James Dalton had instead been found guilty by this Dáil and been executed accordingly.

Dundon objected again on the grounds that no witness could tell what anyone would do in hypothetical situations. Marrinan pressed on, wanting to know what powers this underground court had. At this, Joseph rallied enough to make a sortie from the stand: “It is the government of this country and it is recognised by the country.” However, when Marrinan repeatedly asked whether the power of this government included that to sentence a man to death, Joseph retreated back to pleas of ignorance on the matter.

Choice Words

Unable to lure his witness into saying anything beyond stock answers, Marrinan instead tried unsettling him with thinly veiled taunts:

DI Marrinan: Were you aware that a good many evil disposed people had given your brother a lot of trouble – didn’t they shoot him?

Joseph Dalton: That was public property; I was aware he was shot.

DI Marrinan: Were you not aware also that in different parts of the town there were written notices “Dalton the Spy” and “Dalton the Informer”?

It was the first time in the course of the inquiry that the loaded terms ‘spy’ and ‘informer’ had been voiced. Joseph did not rise to the challenge and downplayed the aforementioned notices, dismissing them as the work of youngsters whose mothers had already apologised for them. Furthermore, he added, the Sinn Féin Club had helped to wipe out the notices, a message to his onlookers that James had had the support of the new local authorities as well as the new national one.

Lines in the Sand

Hoping to cast a wider net, DI Marrinan began to ask about the men James had contacted when seeking his Dáil Éireann inquiry. When it seemed that Joseph might actually answer, Dundon cut them both short on his potentially sensitive matter. The solicitor then ignored the District Inspector to address to jury, reminding them of the brutality of a man shot down in front of his children, and how he did not think he had anything to add by speaking of it any further.

What Dundon did speak further on was how the lack of charges made against James Dalton by the political organisation – and by this, everyone knew he meant Sinn Féin – and the steps he had taken to clear his name of the still-unspecified accusation against him all pointed towards an innocent man. Dundon closed his speech with the maxim of how ‘nothing uncharitable be said of the dead.’ In short: case closed.

A naïve newcomer to the country might have found it peculiar that a solicitor in a murder inquiry would spend his time on the reputation of the victim and none on who might have actually done the deed. But then, Dundon probably knew that the Crown court in which he stood had little power on the matter, anyway.

The District Inspector was not so easily deterred, however, when it came to his turn. How had it come to pass, he wondered out loud, that in a Christian and civilised city, a man had been done to death in broad daylight by a shadowy court that presumed the power of life and death? Did not the jury consider this one murder to be a dangerous precedence, that to accept the situation as somehow normal would be to grant such assassination a form of legality? Marrinan implored his audience as Irishmen and Catholics:

For God’s sake have pluck and have public opinion, and stand up against these cold-blood murders that are disgusting and ruining our country. Let them accept no record of any secret court but only the record of a court that tries a man with the light of God on it.

I beg of you to take your courage in your hands, and I say damn these people who would shoot myself to-morrow if they could do it. Take your courage and do as I would do, and you will soon have Ireland a land that every man can be proud of.

But Marrinan was preaching to the wrong congregation. The District Inspector was yesterday’s man, as out of touch as the system he was striving to defend. When the jury returned its verdict, it gave nothing more than a repeat of the obvious – that James Dalton had died of shock and haemorrhaging from multiple wounds by persons unknown – and the standard expression of sympathy for the bereaved family. For better or for worse, the jury had accepted the new status quo in their city.

The sole whiff of comedy in the grim and often tense proceedings was provided when DI Marrinan refused to hand back the Dáil letter of James Dalton’s innocence. When the court coroner protested such ungentlemanly conduct, the District Inspector replied that it would take a better man than the coroner to take it off him. Rather than risk the spectacle of two officials brawling in court over a sheet of a paper, the coroner merely accepted a second copy from the deceased’s brother.[6]

A Question of Spies

The IRA practice of targeting spies during the War of Independence has been a contentious issue for historians, not least for how emotionally charged it can be. When reviewing such practices by the Meath Brigade, historian Oliver Coogan admitted to his readers that it “may make unpleasant reading or even upset some people’s romantic notions that nothing underhand or unsavoury was indulged in by Volunteers in the old days.”[7]

IRA/Irish Volunteers

Further complicating such romantic notions are the questions to whether the victims were killed solely on the basis of their suspected espionage or if factors such as sectarianism, personal feuds, unfounded paranoia and the like were involved.

The case of James Dalton is atypical for a number of reasons. For one, very few IRA members were charged by their own with spying throughout the course of the War. This made the IRA, according to historian Eunan O’Halpin, one of the safest places for an informant to have been was within the IRA, given how only a handful of Volunteers – perhaps only half a dozen – were executed up to December 1921.[8]

As if this did not make Dalton’s death enough of an anomaly, he had already received a ‘clean bill of health’ by the Dáil authorities for all the good it did him, suggesting either a dire miscommunication between Limerick and Dublin or a breakdown in IRA discipline.DI Marrinan had tried to muddy the waters further by arguing that it had been the underground Dáil court that had had Dalton killed, whatever its own paperwork claimed.

The recently released Witness Statements from the Bureau of Military History (BMW) have helped to shed some light on the issue. In other ways, however, the BMH Statements only complicate the picture further.

A Tragic Mistake?

Kevin O’Shiel, an acquaintance of Dalton’s from when they had campaigned together for Sinn Féin in the 1918 South Armagh by-election, described his death as “a tragic mistake, indeed, a crime.” Although not personally familiar with the details of the case, he was told by the IRA director for publicity, Pierce Beasley – who was – that Dalton had been a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and it had been other members of this secret society who had killed him.

Dalton’s habit of visiting the Limerick RIC barracks canteen for a drink (“being rather a thirsty soul,” as O’Shiel generously put it) was enough to put him under suspicion. Quite why Dalton would feel the need to go to an enemy stronghold for a drink when there were presumably enough pubs in Limerick already, O’Shiel did not speculate about.

Pierce Beasley

Despite vindication by a top level inquiry, which had included Pierce Beasley, an “undisciplined group” from the IRB took it upon themselves to shoot Dalton all the same. Michael Collins, for one, was enraged, not only that an innocent man was dead, but how a decree of the IRB Supreme Executive, of which Collins was head, had been blatantly ignored.[9]

This breach in discipline was taken seriously enough by the IRA GHQ for Frank Thornton, the Deputy Assistant Director of Intelligence, and ‘Squad’ member Joe Dolan to be dispatched to Limerick for investigation. After a week of careful survey, as Thornton put it, they were able to piece together something of the local scene.

Dalton had not only been a member of the 1st battalion of the Mid-Limerick IRA, but its intelligence officer, and his killers had been from the 2nd battalion, the 1st and 2nd covering Limerick City and Castleconnell respectively. Thornton noticed the tension between the two battalions that dated back to the failure of the Easter Rising, although he leaves that possible reason for the shooting unsaid and says nothing about any role by the IRB.

Instead, he identifies the motive as the result of a misunderstanding: Dalton had indeed been associating with enemy agents like he had been accused of, but they had been his double-agents and he had been meeting them for information, and “some very valuable information” at that according to Thornton, in his capacity as intelligence officer. Thornton and Dolan left Limerick confident that they had definite evidence to submit to GHQ that Dalton had been innocent like the earlier Dáil Éireann inquiry had said.[10]


Both O’Shiel and Thornton were too far removed from the Limerick scene to be ideal sources. O’Shiel’s worth is primarily in what he tells us the reactions in Dublin, and he corroborates Joseph Dalton’s claim that the victim had already been cleared of the charges against him.

As for Thornton and Dolan, their week in the city was unlikely to be enough to fully gauge the situation there, despite what Thornton thought, but Dalton’s membership of the 1st battalion and the feud between the 1st and 2nd battalions are corroborated by more local sources.

Historians have been divided over Thornton’s statement that Dalton had been a luckless intelligence officer shot for doing his job too well. According to Thomas Toomey: “Thornton and Dolan were hard-bitten intelligence men who lived by their wits in the ruthless world of Dublin in 1920 and it would be reasonable to believe that they would have smelled a ‘cock and bull’ story from a distance” – which may have been true in Dublin, but in Limerick they were outsiders in an unfamiliar scene.[11]

John O’Callaghan, on the other hand, characterises the 1st battalion as having been “redundant” since 1917, making Dalton’s activities as its intelligence agent unlikely. Furthermore, if Dalton had secured such information, none of it has since come to light.[12]

Of course, there is no reason to believe that any such intelligence should do so, considering the clandestine nature of espionage, especially if Dalton had declined to keep written notes. Still, it is surely significant that none of the other sympathetic sources repeated this claim.


More detailed accounts can be found in the BMH Statements of those who worked in the Limerick IRA. John J. Quilty could claim an intimate knowledge of the case, having testified in Dalton’s favour at his Dáil Éireann inquiry. Though an early recruit when the Irish Volunteers were first formed in 1913, Quilty’s role during the War of Independence was limited largely to fund-raising for imprisoned Volunteers.

He was still prepared to help out on the odd occasion such as assisting in the kidnap of a RIC sergeant in revenge for him attempting to arrest a Volunteer in the village of Caherconlish. The policeman was driven six to eight miles out of Caherconlish, struggling all the while with his captors in the backseat, before being abandoned in the middle of nowhere.

For this bloodless but humiliating assault, two or three of those involved were arrested and imprisoned. Quilty was suspected but remained untouched. This incident was well known to Dalton, which was why Quilty was called as a friendly witness for the hearing.

According to Quilty, the inquiry was held overhead a boot-shop called Herberts in O’Connell Street, Limerick, opposite the Royal George Hotel. Presiding over it as judge was Cahir Davitt, while the secretary of the court (though Quilty is not certain on this point) was Paddy Sheenan, the former secretary to Éamon de Valera. If so, this would tally with Kevin O’Shiel’s description of the inquiry as a high-level affair.

Upon cross-examination by Dalton’s legal counsel, Quilty recounted the incident of the kidnapped RIC officer. The counsel’s point was clear: Dalton knew of Quilty’s involvement, and Quilty had not been arrested unlike the others, and so it followed that Dalton was not passing on incriminating information to the Crown authorities. Quilty had no problem agreeing with this line of reasoning, at which point Dalton pushed his luck.

Going over the head of his counsel and proving the legal adage that the man who acts as his own lawyer has a fool for a client, Dalton asked his witness if he considered him, as an acquaintance of thirty years, as someone who could be trusted. Quilty coolly replied that he preferred to keep to the point he had already testified for and no further. However embarrassing this rebuff, it did not stop the inquiry from ruling Dalton innocent all the same.[13]

Dáil Republican Court, Westport Town Hall, 1920


The murder of a man the Dáil had already cleared of wrongdoing (although not of indiscretion) was a challenge to its authority that could not go unanswered. Richard O’Connell, a senior officer in the Limerick IRA, was tasked with tracking down the main suspect. Given the inter-battalion rivalry, it is perhaps not surprising that this was the quartermaster of the 2nd battalion: Martin Barry.

IRA/Irish Volunteers

As O/C of the 5th battalion, O’Connell could be counted on as a neutral party, and as someone Barry would have no reason to avoid. On the run and now wanted by both sides in the ongoing war, Barry proved himself an elusive prey until O’Connell was able to arrange a meeting with him in Limerick City, from which he was taken to Castleconnell and placed under arrest. O’Connell does not say how willingly Barry went. The quartermaster need not have worried, as there was no clear evidence against him for Dalton’s murder and the charges fizzled out after a week.[14]

Both Quilty and O’Connell agreed that the friction between the 1st and 2nd battalions was as much a factor in Dalton’s murder as his poor choice of houses to visit. Quilty went as far as to accuse the 2nd battalion of maligning Dalton’s character to smear the 1st battalion by association, a belief that was apparently shared by others and one, given the vitriol in the feud, that is not hard to believe.[15]

O’Connell’s account also sheds more light on the role of the IRB. He had been enrolled in the Organisation – as insiders liked to call it – by Liam Forde, who was the Brigade Commandant and O/C of the 1st Battalion as well as one of the heads of the local IRB Circle. Despite Forde’s position in the Mid Limerick IRA, O’Connell regarded his involvement in the case as undertaken on behalf of the IRB specifically.

O’Connell’s attitude towards the IRB when he came to composing his BMH Statement decades later was one of faint condensation, remembering it as having little importance in Limerick and being largely limited to the 1st battalion. Given the poor reputation that battalion had among the others, the IRB was regarded with the same low opinion accordingly.[16]

The Brotherhood

The association in O’Connell’s account of the IRB with the 1st battalion, and the consensus in most of the sources that Dalton was killed by the 2nd battalion, would seem to contradict Kevin O’Shiel’s opinion that Dalton’s shooting was an act by the IRB, this same IRB which supposedly had no real influence outside of one battalion. However, contemporary paperwork within the IRA would seem to argue against such a clear depiction.

Gearóid O’Sullivan

Court-martial charge sheets signed on the 27th of May 1920 by IRA Adjutant general– who would then have been Gearóid O’Sullivan – listed a series of alleged offences by six Volunteers, one of whom was Martin Barry. All six were charged with committing robberies without the sanction of the IRA GHQ and with keeping the money gained from such robberies – it is unclear which one was considered the worst.

Barry’s charge sheet is noteworthy in how it included the accusation that he:

Attempted to coerce an Officer of the Limerick City Batt. into joining another organization, by threatening him that he would not be acceptable for the position of Batt. Commandant, and that he would not be trusted by his officers unless he joined.[17]

Although this other organisation was not named, its description could only match the IRB which had a policy of infiltrating other societies such as the IRA and encouraging the promotion of its own members to better control the secondary body.[18]

That Barry was in the IRB is supported by the recollections of Con McNamara, also of the 2nd Battalion and a lieutenant in its A Company, of Barry acting as witness for McNamara being sworn into the Brotherhood in 1917 by their commanding officer, John Sweeney.[19]

Such evidence indicates that John J. Quilty and Richard O’Connell’s opinion that the IRB in the Mid Limerick Brigade was largely limited to the 1st Battalion was an oversimplification. After all, not only were at least three 2nd Battalion officers also in the IRB, but one was accused of attempting to threaten an officer of 1st into joining the fraternity.

Kevin O’Shiel’s belief that Dalton’s murder was a case of the IRB turning on its own now appears a more solid one. That IRB members would defy so blatantly an order from their superiors in the Executive casts the Brotherhood in a different light to its usual image as a slick, well-oiled machine under the firm control of its leadership. Here, it is a body of men as prone to infighting, feuds and uncertain discipline as any of this period.

IRA, East Limerick

In light of what O’Connell had to say, it would be tempting to regard these court-martials as being for Dalton’s murder, particularly as the dates are so close together. But nowhere in the paperwork does it suggest anything of the sort, and it is hard to imagine the murder of a fellow Volunteer being considered of less importance than the misappropriation of funds. O’Connell’s belief that he had arrested Barry on the charge of Dalton’s shooting seems to have been a confusion, perhaps brought about the decades that had passed by the time he composed his BMH Statement in 1952.

The court-martial was to be held on the 5th of June in Limerick, and letters were sent to Rory O’Connor, as IRA Director of Engineering, and Tomás Malone, Commandant of the East Limerick Brigade, to attend in their roles as senior officers. The court-martial notes depict a sullen and uncooperative Martin Barry refusing to plead or answer questions.[20]

The final verdict has been unrecorded. Some clue, however, may be gleaned from how Barry was identified in April 1921 as still being the Brigade quartermaster. Clearly, the court-martial had done his career no harm at all.[21]

A Conclusion of Sorts?

A visiting reporter from the Irish Times in the days following Dalton’s murder noted how the scene of the crime on Clare Street attracted hundreds of visitors, and the many standpoints from which the circumstances were debated. The discussion continues on to this day, with none of the sources able to provide a clear picture.[22]

Joseph Dalton was evasive on the stand in the Crown court inquiry. Frank Thornton described James Dalton as an intelligence officer who fell under suspicion when meeting his own spies, a claim that not even the other sympathetic sources repeat. Quilty and O’Connell provide some illuminating details, particularly on the feud between the 1st and 2nd Battalions that served as the backdrop to the murder.

O’Connell, however, underestimated the extent of the IRB. He believed it limited to the 1st Battalion, while there is ample proof that it was prominent throughout the 2nd as well. Kevin O’Shiel, the source most removed from the Limerick scene, was probably the most accurate when he described the murder as resulting from conflict within the local IRB, but he could provide little more than that.

Even the original question of whether Dalton was a police spy is disputed. Both the Dáil Éireann and IRB Supreme Executive found there were sufficient grounds to declare him innocent, but this was not enough to stop those who believed otherwise from shooting him dead in the street.

There was to be no justice for James Dalton. Another brother, John, continued the fight to clear his name, going so far as to write to Arthur Griffith. Dalton’s widow was granted £500 by the Dáil in recognition of the unlawfulness of his homicide. She died in 1933. Their eldest daughter, who had been among those who had witnessed their father’s murder, heard the names of those responsible from her father as he had lain dying in the street. She never revealed who they were. According to her son, she never ceased to preach the virtues of forgiveness.[23]

It was the best legacy James Dalton was going to get, as a man who learnt that sometimes in war, it is not only the enemy who is trying to kill you.



Originally posted on The Irish Story (09/03/2015)



[1] Limerick Chronicle, 18/05/1920, 27/05/1920

[2] Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920 ; O’Shiel, Kevin (BMH / WS 1770 – Part 5), p. 147

[3] Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920

[4] Limerick Leader, 17/05/1920

[5] Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920 ; Limerick Leader, 28/05/1920

[6] Limerick Leader, 31/05/1920. Compare the muted reaction of the jury with the coroner’s inquest into the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain which accused Llyod George, among others, of having a role.

[7] Coogan, Oliver. Politics and War in Meath, 1923-23 (Dublin: Folens and Co. Ltd, 1983), p.168

[8] O’Halpin, Eunan, ‘Problematic Killing during the Irish War of Independence and its Aftermath: Civilian Spies and Informers’, Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain, and Europe: Historical Perspectives (Sallins, Co Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013) p. 343

[9] O’Shiel, p. 148

[10] Thornton, Frank (BMH / WS 615), p. 16-7

[11] Toomey, Thomas. The War of Independence in Limerick, 1912-1919 (Thomas Toomey, 2010), pp. 284-5

[12] O’Callaghan, John. Revolutionary Limerick: The Republican Campaign for Independence in Limerick, 1913-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010), p. 176

[13] Quilty, John J. (BMH / WS 516), pp. 16-9

[14] O’Connell, Richard (BMH / WS 656) pp. 37-8

[15] Quilty, p. 19

[16] O’Connell, Richard (BMH / WS 656) pp. 37-8

[17] National Library of Ireland Manuscripts, MS 11,410/6/2

[18] One example of this was the eyewitness testimony of a distinctly unimpressed Séumas Robinson (BMH / WS 1721), p. 18

[19] Military Service Pensions Collection, MA/MSPC/RO/134, p. 11

[20] National Library of Ireland Manuscripts, MS 11,410/6/2-7 and MS 11,406/2/3-5 for the complete paperwork that has survived on the court-martial.

[21] Portley, Morgan (BMH / WS 1559) p. 29

[22] Irish Times, 18/05/1920

[23] O’Callaghan, p. 175 ; Toomey, p. 284 ; with thanks to Sarah Ryan, James Dalton’s great-granddaughter




Irish Times, 18/05/1920

Limerick Chronicle, 18/05/1920

Limerick Chronicle, 27/05/1920

Limerick Leader, 17/05/1920

Limerick Leader, 28/05/1920

Limerick Leader, 31/05/1920

Bureau of Military History / Witness Statements

O’Connell, Richard, WS 656

O’Shiel, Kevin, WS 1770 – Part 5

Portley, Morgan, WS 1559

Quilty, John J., WS 516

Robinson, Séumas, WS 1721

Thornton, Frank, WS 615


Coogan, Oliver. Politics and War in Meath, 1923-23 (Dublin: Folens and Co. Ltd, 1983)

O’Callaghan, John. Revolutionary Limerick: The Republican Campaign for Independence in Limerick, 1913-1921 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2010)

O’Halpin, Eunan, ‘Problematic Killing during the Irish War of Independence and its Aftermath: Civilian Spies and Informers’, Death and Dying in Ireland, Britain, and Europe: Historical Perspectives (Sallins, Co Kildare: Irish Academic Press, 2013)

Toomey, Thomas. The War of Independence in Limerick, 1912-1919 (Thomas Toomey, 2010)

National Library of Ireland Manuscripts

MS 11,406/2/3-5

MS 11,410/6/2-7

Military Service Pensions Collection